Father Christmas

It must be more than the BB gun and the leg lamp, so what keeps bringing us back to this beloved holiday film?

Author: Werner Graf ’86

The description of the movie A Christmas Story on the TV guide reads as follows: “In the 1940s, little Ralphie tries to convince his parents to get him a Red Ryder Range Model BB gun for Christmas.” Viewers know that this thumbnail plot summary is a grave disservice. No film with that shallow a premise would ever warrant 24/7 looped viewing on two major cable stations. Nor would such a flimsy cinematic narrative justify its own museum drawing millions of visitors, a Santa’s bag full of eclectic cultural references or enshrinement as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time in a survey of critics. No, this is an epic.

After its paltry 1983 opening in theaters, the film’s status grew through the 1980s and 90s, eventually gaining so many delighted viewers that it transitioned stealthily from cult to culture. It now ranks in the stratosphere of such time-honored classics as It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street.

When writer Jean Shepherd’s melodic voiceover in the opening scene honors his old Hammond, Indiana, home, the movie immediately takes us to his 1940 childhood avatar, Ralphie Parker. “Christmas! The time of year that every kid’s calendar revolves around.” And yet to categorize this film simply as a Christmas classic is also a mistake. For it is something more. Much more. But why?

My revelation started in December 2021 when I discovered, to my great dismay, that my 90-year-old father, Werner (Rip) Graf ’61, had never seen the movie. This was somewhat baffling given that our family had for years enjoyed Christmas buffets at Fortune House in Michigan City, Indiana, complete with requisite “Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra’s” and jokes about chopping off duck heads. Dad had apparently been laughing at the references all these years thinking they were purely products of his weird and creative children.

It was clear that we had failed him. How could Dad have not seen a film about an 9-year-old boy in northern Indiana (The Region, as we call it) in 1940? My father was that exact age then, growing up in Michigan City, a mere 30 miles from Ralphie’s home. When Ralphie is in bed in one scene, he hears the same horn from the South Shore that 9-year-old Dad would have heard 40 minutes later as the train made its way from Chicago to South Bend. Hard to believe Ralphie could be 90 years old, but he is.

So, it was my mission last Christmas to sit my father down and watch the film. Watching movies with Dad had become a common pastime over the years and period films like westerns and murder mysteries have been a staple. But in October 2021, Dad suffered a stroke, the kind which left him with a strong long-term memory — such as recalling the family’s 1945 Chevy panel truck — but made recalling the current day a challenge. It hadn’t paralyzed him, but made him so unsteady that falls became a daily mortal danger.

Making it downstairs to the big screen had become an effort, more like physical therapy, and watching movies together had become even more of a treasure. So one day last Christmas week, we made it an event. We descended the double staircase, lit a nice fire, turned off all the lights except for the tree, and let A Christmas Story claim one more delighted fan.

The first thing a new viewer might notice is that, from the outset, a virtual hodgepodge of unrelated concepts come at the audience in staccato, a precursor of the popular TV series The Wonder Years. We see life not only through the eyes of a 9-year old boy, but through the reflective wisdom of his adult self. The scenes bounce from subject to subject, interrupted with vivid daydreams and detours through pre-war era family routines. Parental quirks, school angst, peer pressure, daring protocols, a fascination with cursing, bullies, decoder rings, pink bunny outfits, corporal punishment and other rites of passage — all seen through a child’s lens. This includes the pursuit of the object of Ralphie’s desire: a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a timepiece.

The humor expertly drives the mood which permeates this odd film, weaving seemingly unrelated memories into a cohesive theme around his Christmas pursuit of the gun. Many of the scenes are purposely exaggerated to capture Ralphie’s warped pre-adolescent perceptions compared to the much saner reality. The famous “Santa Slide” scene is a perfect example: to Ralphie, the elves become borderline sadistic, as opposed to a more mundane reality only evident when the scene ends. As he picks Ralphie up — limp, defeated and demoralized at the bottom of the slide — his father asks whether Santa knew if he had been a good boy and heard what he wanted for Christmas while in the background, we see a much saner Santa crew doling out holiday cheer. This is a vitally important scene, though not initially apparent.

The humorous pursuit of a gun at Christmas is clever, but still doesn’t make much sense as a catalyst for the film’s cultish following. The cinematic techniques alone were not unique or powerful enough for me and others to watch A Christmas Story so often and with such delight. No, something subconsciously drove my insistence that Dad watch it. What was it?

As one scene after another referenced 1940s northern Indiana, Dad snapped me out of contemplation with repeated exclamations of, “I remember that!” Maybe it was just that: nostalgia. It’s about a long, lost America and home. In fact, Shepherd’s citing of the Wizard of Oz throughout the movie not only provides a period timestamp, but an undercurrent theme that there’s indeed no place like home. What generates the familial joy of Christmas if not our traditions? The Higbee’s department store window? The reflections of childhood as a safe place with family and comfort food; the dreams of heroism (Dell’s Red Ryder Comic No. 1 first appeared in September, 1940) all wrapped in a season of peace to men of goodwill? The nostalgia of home embedded in the film amplified by the Christmas setting — surely a winning combination.

Though not overtly religious (Ralphie’s family never once mentions Jesus or going to church), the goodwill of Christmas and the importance of Christianity as part the fabric and foundation of this nostalgic America is clearly on display. The setting is of a safe, self-sufficient, moral community. When the Bumpus’ dogs harass the father and eventually ravage the Parkers’ turkey, there’s no thought of neighborly confrontation, violence or litigation. It is what it is. They’re dogs. It’s a time when parents could leave a 9-year-old Ralphie and his 6-year-old brother, Randy, alone in the Santa line at a busy department store while they shopped.

This is a picture of a population unashamed of its culture, long before religious expression in the public square became a contentious constitutional issue, unaware of any controversy surrounding it and completely unbent by worry that someone, somewhere, was going to be offended by our national Christian heritage. It depicts a simpler era, where an orderly classroom, void of phones and talk-back, is adorned with a prominent American flag and the third-grade assignment is unashamedly to write a theme: “What I want for Christmas.”

Many people today, myself included, are dumbfounded and a little frosted that our public schools go on “winter break” and no longer allow overtly Christian songs in year-end “holiday concerts.” But Christmas in Ralphie’s world is America’s holiday. It is an overt and ubiquitous American celebration integral to communal bonding. It is inherently proper, rather than controversial or in need of any disclaimer.

It’s not just the film’s portrayal of Christmas that’s refreshing. A Christmas Story was released in November 1983 and, like many films produced 30 to 40 years ago, is completely devoid of the fear of cancel culture. The entire premise of a child wanting a rifle to shoot people, even Black Bart, makes it a testament to political incorrectness.

Aside from the clear reverence for guns, race relations are not constantly shoved in foreground. The portrayal of black America is tasteful, respectful and likely accurate, at least from the narrator’s point of view. “Go Tell it on the Mountain’ is sung on the street boldly and beautifully by black carolers in the opening scene and black students sit side by side as equals in the desegregated Indiana school system.

Despite its reputation for having a robust KKK over the years, Indiana had in fact amended its “separate but equal” status earlier than many states. Way back in 1877, the state called for integrated schools “when segregated schools weren’t available” — a monumental move given most small communities like Hammond and Michigan City didn’t have resources for two schools, thus virtually assuring integration throughout the state. Dad’s own recollection of black schoolmates in Michigan City was one of equality and respect, if not intimate interaction.

The movie is blissfully free of some woke, solipsistic corporate exec’s racial or gender politics. There is no infusing of victimhood or oppression narratives which now seem to permeate almost everything coming out of Hollywood. It simply shows people as products of their time, unblemished by narcissistic judgement of unaccomplished descendants. In fact, the Library of Congress selected A Christmas Story two decades ago for preservation in the U.S. National Film registry for its “cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.” 

Even so, I noticed on a recent transcontinental flight that the airline tagged A Christmas Story as not appropriate for kids — strange, since the movie is rated a benign PG for “brief, mild violence and language and some bullying.” Whatever prompted this, I hope it does not eliminate a time-honored harbinger of yuletide joy and remove yet another vibrant thread in the American cultural fabric.   

In the meantime, there is no denying that the film is wildly popular either because of, or in spite of, its politically incorrect nostalgia. But nostalgia, even American Christmas nostalgia, still can’t explain the film’s lasting popularity. Very few nostalgic Christmas films elicit the sheer loyalty and anticipation needed for multiple viewings every year. What really brings us back?

Christmas Story Graf
“The real essence of the movie is its showcasing of the glory of fatherhood.” © 1983 MGM

Dad, thoroughly enjoying the film, asks me to turn it up. In parallel to Ralphie’s childish take on the world, we see a father — portrayed by the late, great Darren McGavin — somewhat detached from the goings-on around him. In fact, like many dads I know, he has that inner little boy’s amazement about the world: finishing puzzles, joking about the Sox and Bears, fighting furnace demons and making an Indy 500 game out of changing flat tires. Most illustrative might be his little dance in claiming his “major award,” the now-infamous leg lamp that has since become a national Christmas decoration — a case of life imitating art, perhaps not representing Christmas or the movie, but rather the absurdity of the father’s inner child. The mother (Melinda Dillon) takes pride in her role, knowing she’s the glue holding her three little boys (the dad, Ralphie and Randy) together, even as she’s accused of using all the glue to ensure the “accidentally” broken lamp cannot be repaired.

She is no subservient and stands up straight for herself. In that scene, after stealthily destroying the “major award,” she meets the father’s seething rant in front of the kids with her equally unapologetic, “That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen!” When he implies she’s wrong about the tree lights and says, “I’m not color blind,” she replies sternly, “I’m not color blind either.” She will have none of it.

The lamp scene ends with her laughing under her breath as he puts the matter to rest in the backyard. They de-escalate. They don’t lose perspective.

Although the contentious interplay of the parents is evident throughout film, it is clearly a backdrop to their mutual sacrifice, support and respect. She is constantly showing open affection to her husband with a tug on the elbow, a giggle at his jokes and dinner ready after a hard day. She’s appreciative of his provider role. While tree shopping, they’re touching noses, laughing as co-conspirators in the thrill of negotiation. Her gentle, happy pat on his shoulder honors him as they embark to setting out the presents on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning sees both of them with wine in hand silently toasting each other.

They are equals in love. The father asks her permission for Ralphie to take off the bunny outfit, the pink nightmare, and she concedes, allowing him to be the hero and bail the boy out of his misery. His hand is lightly on her waist as she removes the turkey from the oven. In the final scene, she comes down the stairs and turns on the radio, which is playing “Silent Night.” He says “come over here, honey, and look at this,” as she walks over he hands her another glass of wine. Their glasses clink and he gently caresses the back of her neck before they wrap their arms around each other. Their last scene has them watching God’s gift of a Christmas snowstorm through the front window bathed in the soft glow of their family Christmas tree. They share a quiet reflection on a job well done, two parents raising children in a material world with all of its earthly challenges, distractions and the hectic give-and-take of marriage.

Their evident affection and the portrayal of the iconic family is clearly another reason for the movie’s popularity. It is reassuring to see two parents enjoy camaraderie in raising their family and pulling off another Christmas for the kids. It is an acknowledgement that in a crazy world, peace is found through a celebration of family and the birth of Christ through good parental works. This is clearly part of the movie’s draw.

My dad is having a nice time in his chair and blanket as the fire’s embers glow. I’m cherishing his companionship as we finish this masterpiece and it occurs to me that 2021 has been the year of Saint Joseph, honoring the model of all fathers. I reflect on my father’s support through the years.

McGavin delivers a clarion performance as a lovable but flawed authority figure. His effusive cursing, “a tapestry of obscenity that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan,” was not portrayed as a vice but rather, as Mark Twain once noted of profanity, “a relief denied even to prayer.”

He is respected, revered and even feared. In fact, the kids’ respect for him was underpinned by an overt fear. “Eat or I’ll give you something to cry about!” he threatens the younger brother. Later, Shepherd narrates, “I was dead,” after Ralphie drops the f-bomb while helping to fix a flat tire. As Ralphie cries in bed, awaiting paternal consequences after his fight with bully Scut Farkas, Randy hides in a kitchen cabinet sobbing, “Daddy’s going to kill Ralphie!”

In the dad’s defense, corporal punishment was a common practice back then, as evidenced by Schwartz being whacked ferociously by his mother after an impromptu phone call bearing false witness. Even Ralphie’s sweet mother employed the “soap in the mouth” punishment.

And yet, the father was a clear Saint Joseph figure, providing for his family with patience and without request for acknowledgement. He battles the furnace, decides on the big Christmas tree, fixes the tires, replaces the fuses and tries to make the tree-top star perfect. When the Old Man gets his worthless gifts of a blue bowling ball (which will likely see as much daylight as the bunny suit) and a can of Simoniz (car wax — I had to look it up), he is gracious, honoring the giver by feigning happiness. He is wise because he already knows he has it all: his family. He clearly has the boys’ respect and, more importantly, has his wife’s love, support and devotion to the family they’re building.

Saint John Paul reminded us in his 1994 Letter to Families that “the history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family.” Men often need practical ways to accomplish “fatherhood,” and by daily, often mundane works, they provide that umbrella of support and protection which is essential to raising decent and well-adjusted children. Saint Joseph was the patron saint of workers, described simply as a “worker” in the Bible (MT 13:55). He performed no miracles that we know of in protecting and raising Jesus. Rather, it seems he played the same role as Ralphie’s Old Man. Imperfect as he was, the Old Man was there — dedicated, and more observant than you might think from his cursing and fumbling through the film.

Toward the end, in the Christmas morning scene where Ralphie finally gets his gun, a strange thing happens. Unexpectedly, the film moves on from that singular event that the story had built up to. Instead of a crescendo, it defaults back to the humorous hodgepodge of serial scenes, almost trivializing the moment. The gun, the drama, its momentous acquisition comes and goes, just like the scene of Flick touching his tongue to the frozen pole.

It’s weird and almost anti-climactic. A normal movie might have ended there with fanfare, but then we begin to realize that the entire build up to getting the gun was a cinematic head fake. In fact, the gun becomes a footnote, like so many physical items which, once acquired, become no longer a yearning. It is no more than any other transient earthly thing and the movie brilliantly treats it as such. 

It turns out the mysterious success of A Christmas Story is not from the pursuit or acquisition of the Red Ryder Rifle at all. It’s not the humor, nor the nostalgia for simpler times. It’s not the narrative style or the Christmas setting for which it is named. These are but solid supporting pillars.

I finally realize in my umpteenth viewing and conscious reflection that the real essence of the movie is its showcasing of the glory of fatherhood.  

The Old Man, as it turns out, is indeed Saint Joseph, repeatedly rescuing the family from disaster. His actions throughout underpin the theme. When the Bumpus’ dogs devour their Christmas dinner and the mother sobs, it is he, the father, who suppresses any justified anger, straightens up, and instructs his family to get dressed so that they can go out to eat and celebrate. It was nonnegotiable. They would not be defeated and the dad’s firm voice immediately forbade the family to despair. He instinctively turns the disgusting ruins of a turkey platter into the best Christmas they ever had, when “all was right in the world.”

In the movie’s final scene, as Ralphie drifts off in bed clutching his gun, it all finally comes together. The father had asked Ralphie earlier in the department store if he had been a good boy and if Santa knew what he wanted. Ralphie’s defeated reply was met with a strangely amused reassurance that, “He knows. He always knows.” As it turns out, that is the key scene in the entire movie. We now realize that the gun’s real value is in its representation of a father’s attentive love, set in the Christmas season when Our Father gave his Son to humanity so that all would be “right in the world.”

Ralphie closes his eyes knowing that he was a beloved son, with whom his father was well pleased. His Old Man knew what he wanted the whole time. He knew, just as Saint Joseph knew, just as our father in heaven knows exactly what we need. All was right in the world because his father had given him the greatest gift he had ever received, or would ever receive.

I glanced at my father as the fire died, reflected on a lifetime of his support and love, and felt the exact same way.

Werner Graf is the chief customer officer of a global IT services firm. He splits time between New Orleans and New Jersey.