There are several movies I make a point of watching every year at Christmas time, in a rather ritualistic honoring of my childhood — one of which, A Christmas Story, stands out largely because it shares my reverence for nostalgia. In fact, part of the reason I love this movie is because my grandpa, who passed away when I was a junior in high school, loved it, and we’d always turn on the 24-hour TNT marathon when we were at my grandparents’ house on Christmas. But I also love it because of how its story is crafted and what it continues to teach me about good storytelling.
The magic of Jean Shepherd’s writing (in the screenplay and its source material, his 1966 book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash) as well as his narration of the movie is that, both as a kid and as an adult, it feels like the narrator is speaking to you in a way that resonates. When I was a kid, adult Ralphie’s narrative voice talked about his childhood in a way that implied he understood me — like he was acknowledging that all kids were in on a secret together. He accurately represented the wants and needs of “kiddom.” We shared the perspective that all of the adults in the movie (Ralphie’s parents, his teacher, even Santa) simply don’t “get it” and are being unfair by denying him his coveted Red Ryder BB gun, the thing he wants most for Christmas. Somehow, the risk of shooting his eye out sounds not terrifying to a child viewer but ridiculously overprotective. Viewing the movie as an adult, I see all too easily that Ralphie’s eager enthusiasm to own that gun —influenced partially by successful marketing and partially by jealousy that his friend Flick is getting one — blinds him to the very real risks involved. Further, I can relate to the parents’ various stressors (even without being a parent myself) — the chaotic pace of the holiday season, the cooking, the broken furnace, the blown-out tire — and settle with them into the simple comfort of watching the snow fall through the tree-lit window, wine glasses in hand, after a tiring day.
Catering to both childhood and adulthood, and blurring the lines between the two realms, surely plays a large part in the movie’s continued growth in popularity over several decades, allowing it to appeal to all ages. It also functions as a key element of the movie’s plot. Ralphie’s mother often reaches across the adulthood-childhood boundary as a calming counterpoint to his father’s temper: asking picky-eater Randy to show her “how the piggies eat,” shouting out “Jingle Bells” with the kids in the car, comforting Randy with a glass of milk and gently closing the door to his kitchen-cupboard hideout, covering for Ralphie about his displaced glasses after he gets in a fistfight. But this theme is most powerfully illustrated by the pivotal Christmas morning scene when Ralphie finally gets his beloved rifle. There is a simple beauty in the giddy, almost nervous smile that twitches on The Old Man’s face as he watches Ralphie tear into the wrapping paper, the way he moves his fingers as if loading the rifle himself, experiencing anew a moment that was so significant in his own childhood. In that moment, the divide between kiddom and adulthood that seemed so vast for much of the movie is collapsed, morphing into a shared joy and, thereby, an understanding.
The task at hand for this narrative style is to talk about childhood with the benefit of perspective gained over time, without diminishing what’s sacred about the childhood experience. The narrator has to embody both simultaneously: to recall the joys, worries, and pains of childhood so vividly that we feel the blows Ralphie lets loose on Scut Farkas, Randy’s inability to put his arms down, the delicate “nuance of phrase” in the double- and triple-dare ritual — but with the wisdom that can only be gained by years more of living, providing a frame in which to display those childhood experiences and analyze them fully.
A couple of my favorite lines illustrate this approach well:
“I went out to face the world again, wiser”
— this after the letdown of using his secret decoder pen to uncover an advertisement for Ovaltine. That last word, “wiser,” is not kid Ralphie’s interpretation but adult Ralphie’s, reflecting back on how the experience shifted his worldview. Kid Ralphie just felt disappointed and annoyed. (“A crummy commercial?”) Adult Ralphie knows how that disappointment, after such feverish anticipation, was significant enough to last and color his expectations of future promises.
“The light was getting purple and soft outside — almost time for my father to come home from work.”
I love that Shepherd describes the time of day this way, rather than saying, “It was 5:00.” It makes sense that a child would recognize that powerful image of the changing sky as indicative of his father’s impending arrival home, particularly on that day as he anticipated getting in trouble for fighting Farkas. It’s also precisely the kind of image likely to stick with him into adulthood and stay closely tied to the emotions of those earlier years.
As I hope soon to publish a personal essay I’ve written about the most formative friendship of my childhood, the Christmas Story narrative runs through my head as a prime example of this delicate task, working to merge those two such important perspectives: who I was at 11 and who I am now at 34. The intersection of the two — what I still carry with me from those playground days and what I only know of them now that I’ve lived a couple decades more — is where that aforementioned magic can happen.
I’m excited to share here an excerpt from that essay, which tells the origin story of my sixth-grade girl gang, as we savored a sudden rush of popularity and struggled to bear it responsibly. It’s important to note, as explained later in the manuscript, that we pronounced the name “my girls” — but we spelled it with an “i” because it looked cute.
The MiGirls [an excerpt]
The girls and I had already become known as a unit, but one particular afternoon cemented us as something of a legacy that reached beyond our own classroom’s walls. It was early autumn. I recall the light on the playground as having a golden hue, near sepia; it seems appropriately solemn for the occasion, so I like to tell myself it’s accurate. Regardless of the lighting and the tricks time plays on the weight of things, that day was bursting with a sense of possibility. I had come to cherish the knowledge that I was someone who could make things happen, whose voice mattered for whatever naïve, trivial reasons to those around me, and on that day I felt an urge to make good use of it.
Harper had been lurking around our tree for days, like a raccoon staking out the potential for some good loot. Creeping ever closer to where we sat in the shade, in a circle so compact our knees were touching, she seemed to be watching for the right moment to enter the ring, as if our comfortable routine were a game of Double Dutch. Listening in on our conversations was the norm, but this was more of a direct, offensive move. Rather than acting as if she were merely passing by as she mumbled to herself, she continued to saunter nearer, staring. Her eyes were always so wide and piercing; they gave me the disconcerting feeling she was just barely holding back some form of hysterics. Typically, our whispered crush confessions and giggle fits would trail off as we tried to pretend we weren’t affected by her encroaching presence, and she would soon get bored and move on. That day, though, we couldn’t seem to shake her, and the girls were insistent that I say something. They made pointed eye contact with me, gesturing subtly in Harper’s direction; there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that I should address the problem.
Harper, too, pegged me as the one: as she ventured closer, she warbled my name and beckoned with a finger that looked genuinely witch-like. What was this quality I was emitting that portrayed me as some sort of leader? I had never knowingly displayed a desire to speak for the pack. Now that the opportunity was there, though, staring me down like a dare my inner critic knew I wouldn’t take, I felt a rush akin to what I assumed being drunk must feel like. I walked away from the tree to talk with her, maybe 20 paces out. Open territory, public territory. Not our hallowed space. Away from its shelter, my composure wavered. Trying to be subtle about it, I took a slow, deep breath as I approached her, the crisp air burning my throat.
“What?” I asked flatly. I tried to evoke an effortless confidence.
She wanted to know if we could try being friends again. Even then, her view of the matter struck me as odd: she saw a friendship as something you could force. Just keep pushing until the pieces fit together.
The other three girls appeared behind me tentatively, like deer approaching a roadway.
As we rattled off the evidence against her like prosecuting attorneys, a small crowd began to gather, 15 or 20 kids, from our class and others. This rivalry had become well known. There was something thrilling about realizing that our peers talked about us, amidst their otherness, their own crafts tables and bus lines.
I wasn’t looking to be cruel; there was simply a palpable, urgent need to be rid of this topic. The dance of tenuous friendship had already been through several exhausting rounds over the previous few years; she was always looking to be absolved for her wrongdoings, though not able to assure they wouldn’t be repeated. For every point we presented that day about her past deceptions, she offered a groundless counterpoint. She wanted us simply to trust her that things would be better moving forward, but there was no trust established as a foundation. The crooked grin on her face the entire time she talked implied that she didn’t even believe herself. She was like a salesman looking to close the deal on a crappy product.
“Let me talk with my girls,” I said as I turned, luxuriating in the slow torture of it, the surge of power. I think we all knew there was no further discussion to be had. I took my time walking away, the other girls falling in line like a school of fish. I think I even put my arms around them, something I felt Rizzo might do with the Pink Ladies, complete with hip-swagger and gum-snap. (We had just watched Grease for the first time during a sleepover, so the feel of it was fresh in my mind. We had been enthralled by it, swooning over John Travolta’s combination of coy sensitivity and an oozing sexuality we didn’t yet quite understand.)
As I said it, I placed a slight, but significant, emphasis on “my girls,” highlighting the honorable selectivity of the classification. It was a moment that would live in blissful notoriety among our peers, verbalizing the bond that had long been observed and respected. I had unknowingly formalized an unwritten rule: the four of us were to be understood, consulted, and revered as a single entity. We were made stronger through our unity, and we were not to be crossed. We were a sisterhood that felt like a legend in the making. We were the MiGirls.
In posting this, I send the happiest of holiday wishes to you all, with hopes for a brighter, calmer, healthy 2021. May your dreams on this Christmas be your equivalent of Ralphie’s spectacular hip shots.
6 thoughts on “A CHRISTMAS STORY: A Guidebook for Nostalgic Narratives”
I couldn’t help but check out your Christmas post after you had commented on mine! Turns out, we’ve got a lot in common. My Christmas project last year was remaking my family’s (drunken) retelling of A Christmas Story.
This one is a favorite for me as well. It manages to bring such a nostalgia, definitely for the reasons you pointed out!!
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Hi, Jacqueline! Reading your latest blog post just now reminded me that I’d seen a comment from you here in passing that I’d forgotten to come back to. How fun that we have this shared affinity for A Christmas Story. A drunken retelling certainly sounds like a fun family experience! Thanks for reading and commenting!
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That was so well written, Rizzo! Happy Holidays!
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Ha! Thanks so much, Carla! You have always been such a generous, faithful cheerleader for me. I appreciate you so much. Happy holidays to you!