Unlike Easter, New Years Day or the summer solstice there’s a wealth of Christmas themed films. Ranging from the saccharine Miracle on 34th Street to the bitter Bad Santa, there’s a Christmas movie out there for every taste. So, in the run up to Christmas, we got our writers to tell us about their personal festive favourite. Our penultimate offering is from Jeff Kennedy who explains how A Christmas Story makes him nostalgic for a time before he was born.
“You’ll shoot your eye out!” – Somehow, this phrase has become synonymous with Christmas. And not just for myself, but for an entire generation of Americans. While it may not have the ring of ‘bah humbug!’, it has nonetheless become the saying most repeated by snarky parents and children alike come the Holidays. For this, we have 1983’s A Christmas Story to thank.
The story of one boys campaign to get a Red-Ryder BB Gun for Christmas, A Christmas Story is the brainchild of one of America’s last great raconteurs, the late Jean Shepherd. Radio host, author, TV personality and all-around storyteller, Shepherd developed a script from a collection of semi-fictional anecdotes of his youth in 30’s/40’s northwestern Indiana. The result is, needless to say, sentimental.
Accompanied by Shepherd’s soothing voice-over narration, the film oozes nostalgia. From vintage Oldsmobile’s to tacky leg-lamps, it is rife with Americana of days past. But as Shepherd himself muses, “Only one thing could have dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window”- the Radio. The role of radio within the film is hugely significant, and offers younger generations a link to the childhood of their parents and grandparents. For myself, this was especially the case.
My dad is, at heart, a radio man. Not owning a TV until his teens, radio made an everlasting impression in his youth and, to this day, you can still find him by following the crackle of his portable radio. In fact, his first A Christmas Story experience isn’t even of the film itself, but rather from one of Shepherd’s radio-show anecdotes in the late 50’s.
As for myself, I have no recollection of my first A Christmas Story experience. It was always there, on the shelf amongst the other recorded-from-TV VHS’ my old man had a penchant for collecting over the years. It was grainy, included dated commercials, and cut in late during the opening credits. Still, it never felt incomplete.
Year after year, always on Christmas eve and sometimes in the days and weeks leading up to it, into the VCR A Christmas Story would go. For 90 or so minutes, our entire dysfunctional family could sit down together and find common ground in the consumption of another dysfunctional family’s Christmas disaster. It was, without fail, our reconciliation.
As in the film, my brothers and I were cruel to each other, my parents were far from perfect, and Christmas in our household was always calamitous. Like a family heirloom, A Christmas Story seemed to capture not only our Christmas, but an entire family lineage of botched attempts at a successful holiday. Hearing my parents find humor in gags I’d thought reserved for children alone was one of those defining moments when a child realizes their parents had a whole life prior to their existence, with the added insight of ‘and it must have been like the movie too!’
By the time I was 12 the tape was nearly worn, but it no longer mattered. A Christmas Story had taken over the American psyche and become a staple of televised Christmas films, being shown continuously for 24 hours from Christmas Eve (an event which continues today and now accounts for over 50 million viewers each year). It was inescapable in the best kind of way.
Living abroad for nearly a decade now, the film has, admittedly, had less of a presence in recent Christmas’. Different traditions make the experience harder to share and, as so often happens with age, my enthusiasm for the holiday season has waned. Over here it seems as though jokes don’t land, cultural references go unappreciated, and subtle nuances slip between the cracks (I suppose too, that the irony of an American pushing a Christmas film about a boy who wants a gun is simply too much to handle). And yet, somehow this only adds to the films personal quality. Indeed, it feels even more like my Christmas film.
Christmas is, by its very nature, nostalgic. It is an eternal, inherited memory that, if of certain religions or culture, one cannot help but feel connected to. A Christmas Story, in that sense, is pure nostalgia. Its a cultural family tree connecting shared memories of a by-gone day when we drove different cars, had different tastes, and watched (or listened to) different programs. With any luck, it will engage the inherited memory of generations to come, tapping into that never ending well of Christmas nostalgia. I only hope I won’t be the Scrooge telling them “You’ll shoot your eye out!”