By Tyler Smith
When looking at a list of the most popular Christmas movies, it may come as a surprise – though perhaps it shouldn’t – that many of them contain an element of magic. From time traveling ghosts to living snowmen to basically everything associated with Santa Claus, the supernatural has always played a vital part in Christmas narratives. This makes sense, as the story of the birth of Jesus, the proverbial “reason for the season,” is one of miracles and wonders.
However, even for those of us that follow Christ, this does not necessarily reflect our yearly Christmas experience. Much as we may enjoy the more fanciful of pop culture holiday offerings, much of our season is made up of family interaction (both good and bad), tacky decorations, gift-giving, and lots of food. There are a handful of Christmas movies that depict this, but even most of them seem to exist in a heightened reality. Kevin McCallister and Clark Griswold might appear to live in the everyday world but the stories they are in would suggest otherwise. No, when it comes to messy, grounded depictions of the holiday, only Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story manages to create a reality that is so palpable that we feel like we can step into the frame ourselves and partake.
Not to suggest that the film is striving for cold objectivity. Far from it. This film is extremely subjective, filtering the story through the eyes of a child. Or, more specifically, a kid; a plain ol’ middle-class kid. Thus to the degree that the film is heightened, it is such in a way that a kid’s perspective on the world is heightened. Adults that seem aggressively intimidating and daydreams that are hilariously on-the-nose are just a couple of the ways the film recreates a childhood that is both specific and broad at the same time. This is helped along by the wry narration of Jean Shepherd (whose work the film is adapted from), who always points out the details that only a little boy would notice.
That little boy is Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), who lives in an unnamed Midwestern city with his parents and his little brother. His low stakes holiday adventures are blown up to epic proportions, with something as innocuous as helping his father change a tire becoming an event of dire significance when a certain four-lettered word accidentally escapes Ralphie’s lips. This along with neighborhood confrontations, double-dog dares, and a belligerent department store Santa make what would appear to be a fairly uneventful Christmas season into a life-changing journey. But all that pales in comparison to Ralphie’s obsession with getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Despite numerous warnings given by every major authority figure in his life, Ralphie spends every moment (waking or otherwise) thinking about that gun. It consumes him.
With so many classic Christmas movies actively decrying the commercialism of the season, it seems strange to center so much of this film around a single present. After all, Christmas is supposed to be about people, not things. And love, not desire. Of course, that is a very adult way of thinking. Thankfully, this movie is too smart to project that onto our main character. This film understands that, to a kid, a toy is rarely just a toy. It is something that can unlock their imagination and to receive one is to be given a gift so much larger than the thing itself. Getting this kind of present can also create a bond with the giver, especially if it is against the rules to give it. Ralphie’s father knows that a BB gun is probably not the safest thing to give his son, but he does it anyway. He gives it to see the smile on his boy’s face and to know that, for a fleeting moment, he was able to make his son happy.
This is a motivation that I have only recently begun to understand in the last few years. And I think that’s what makes this film so timeless. Younger people will see themselves in Ralphie. But as they get older and become parents themselves, they begin to have more in common with his parents. The joy of receiving is soon replaced with the joy of giving. To experience both is an amazing blessing in this life.
It may not be supernatural, but it is no less magical.