It's hard to determine exactly why or how A Christmas Story became a holiday classic. Oh, it's well made and well-oiled, with a broad-based appeal that speaks to a large swath of people. But why exactly? That gets harder to pin down. Something like, say, Home Alone gets a big response from conventional Christmas-loving folks but tends to grate on the hipsters' nerves. Conversely, The Ref or Bad Santa speaks deeply to people who don't care for Christmas, but tends to turn off the holiday warriors who delight in the trappings of Yuletide.
A Christmas Story occupies that sweet spot between them, the same spot claimed by The Nightmare Before Christmas and perhaps the Chuck Jones Grinch, but precious little else. It's subversive without actually subverting anything, celebratory without ignoring the rougher edges of the holidays. It sets up a seemingly perfect Norman Rockwell vision of America, then pokes fun at it in ways that never undermine its core sweetness. That’s a tough combo to pull off, but in so doing, the film became a permanent staple of the holiday landscape.
By now, the particulars are well-known. A small-town boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) yearns for a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas, launching an elaborate series of schemes to get Santa, his parents or anyone in authority to answer his prayers. He has his work cut out for him –he could shoot his eye out after all – but his dogged determination to see it through remains undiminished.
The rifle itself is mere window dressing for a look at the typical American family and the ways in which they don't quite match the squeaky clean image we like to attribute to them. Ralphie's mom (Melinda Dillon) endures the slings and arrows of housewife-dom with an ungainly mix of exasperation and patience, while his father (Darren McGavin) coasts through life in a state of willful obliviousness. Ralphie himself has to deal with bullies, disapproving teachers and the occasional triple-dog dare merely as a part of getting through his day.
The story is inspired by the writings of Jean Shepherd, who provides voice-over narration as an adult version of Ralphie. That's A Christmas Story's most powerful secret weapon: bringing a thick heaping of nostalgia filtered through weary adult eyes that view the bad as fondly as the good. He never lets go of this family's foolishness or hypocrisies, from Dad's fixation on a fetishized table lamp to Mom's coercive used of piggy noises to get her youngest son to eat. The film loves them and mocks them in equal measures, and because Ralphie shares in their shortcomings (again, as viewed from adult eyes), it never looks down on its subjects.
That inclusive quality becomes infectious, inviting us to think back on our own holiday horror shows with a chuckle and a wink instead of any real pain.
It helps too that A Christmas Story absolutely understands what it means to be a kid at this time of year. The world changes for the young at Christmastime, and somewhere along the road, we lose our ability to see things as they do. Most movies of this ilk try to recapture it with heavy-handed schmaltz. A Christmas Story distrusts such easy answers, instead taking an absurdist view that renders it infinitely more appealing to those of us who have yet to experience a perfect holiday (i.e., everyone).
We pick up on the basic formula immediately and the film never lets us lose it again. An underlying sweetness keeps the cynicism from getting out of hand, while the more subversive moments help temper its saccharine tendencies. The production aptly achieves an image of post-war prosperity, where neighbors called each other by name before closing the door and quietly plotting how to show them up. A Christmas Story embraces every part of that equation, creating a holiday classic that manages to be all things to all viewers. That's a present worth celebrating, something most of us have done faithfully every year for the past three decades. Make that three decades and counting; this one isn't going anywhere anytime soon.