This article originally appeared in the December 6, 2013 Canandaigua Daily Messenger.
Most of the time when you learn something has hit a milestone anniversary, the natural reaction probably sounds like “Wow, I can’t believe it’s been so long.” But the news that A Christmas Story is turning 30 this year actually elicits a different response. Only 30? Doesn’t the movie seem much, much older than that?
On the surface this makes sense: After all, Bob Clark’s 1983 film was engineered as a nostalgia piece – a deliberate hop into the Wayback Machine for a trip to the late 1930s (the exact date is never mentioned) for a comically romanticized taste of how Christmas used to be. It felt old even when it was brand new; this was part of its innate charm.
But it also speaks to a more subtle effect of the way something can work its way into the scrapbook of our lives. When a piece of popular culture really connects with us, it can be hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.
Such it is with A Christmas Story, which opened Nov. 18, 1983 as just another feature at your local theater. Clark, the director, was probably enjoying the freedom to make whatever kind of movie he wanted; after all, this was only a year after he released Porky’s, a teen sex movie that earned terrible reviews and yet made lots of money. Yup, Clark had job security – and he used it to make this family-friendly holiday tale, an adaptation of a handful of short stories written years earlier by humorist Jean Shepherd.
The plot (as if you need a refresher): In a prewar Midwest town, nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is not-too-patiently waiting for Christmas to arrive. A Red Ryder BB gun is on his wish list, and he has little interest in anything else (“A football? What’s a football?”). But that request is met with cruel indifference by every adult he meets, from his folks to his teacher to a department-store Santa. Apparently “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” was a popular catchphrase for its time: The “Show Me the Money” of the 1930s, I suppose.
The splendid cast and wonderful period details give grown-ups a reason to clutch this movie to their hearts. But the real reason for its staggering popularity – it long ago replaced It’s a Wonderful Life as our nation’s default holiday-movie experience – is due more to the way it takes us back to our childhood. Not from watching the movie when it first came out, but from the sense of being in the movie. There’s something universal, and timeless, in the innocent single-minded joy of that kid craving the rush of Christmas. We are Ralphie, and he is us.
Consider that this year, when you’re watching the film in one of its marathon airings on cable channel TBS (non-stop from Christmas Eve until Christmas night). But don’t blame me if you find visions of sugarplums dancing in your head.
(IMAGE: Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story. Photo courtesy of George Eastman House.)