For Ralphie Parker, A Christmas Story’s 9-year-old protagonist, this is the year. This Christmas, he’s going to get the thing he wants more than anything in the world: a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle.
Based on radio raconteur and writer Jean Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical anecdotes of growing up in the 1930s, the film centers on the last few days before Christmas in a small town in Indiana. It opens with a cacophonous, almost off-key arrangement of “Deck the Halls.” As a group of children press their noses to a window display of toys, the music hilariously concedes that yes, this is charming, yes, there are snowflakes softly falling, yes, there are cute children looking at toys, but the anticipation is about to reach a boiling point in this O-little-town.
Unfortunately for Ralphie, the maxim “you’ll shoot your eye out” is as well-known in his hometown as the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse (Victor). As a result, Ralph’s various, desperate schemes to finagle the Red Ryder under the tree fall short. The adults in his life—his mother, his teacher, even the department store Santa Claus—do not understand why a boy would want to shoot his eye out.
They’re not wrong. Hand a boy a gun and you’ll end his childhood. Ralph’s daydreams paint him as the gun-toting caretaker of his family and the enlightened hero of his classroom. In one, he protects his mother, father, and younger brother, Randy, from a group of marauding burglars sneaking into the backyard. Once given the gun, Ralph imagines, he’ll cease to be the little kid who gets beat up by the school bully or has to sit in the backseat with his baby brother as his father changes a tire. He’ll be a man.
What Ralphie doesn’t notice is that the adult side of the household feels just as misunderstood as he does.
For most grown-ups, Christmas is an annual rat-race to rediscover the magic of childhood. Why else would we willingly participate in a massive industrial complex that promises to deliver happiness wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string, or hang twinkle lights like they’ll point us to peace on earth? Some years, we almost get there. Most years, we come to at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the 25th of December, drunk and a little sad on the couch, with a bunch of tchotchkes in our lap that we don’t need from people we know too well to love. Whatever happened to Christmas? Whatever happened to waking up approximately three minutes after you fell asleep on Christmas Eve, so excited you sweat through your new flannel pajamas?
Ralphie’s father, commonly referred to as “The Old Man,” is a consummate enthusiast for whom the worthiest object of love is yet to be found. In the meantime, he contents himself with roast turkey and Oldsmobiles and changing flat tires like he’s in the pit at the Indy 500. He’s the ultimate authority in the Parker household (after Ralphie gets into a fight with the school bully, Randy wails, “Daddy’s going to kill Ralphie!”) and what he says, goes. Never mind that his authority is as arbitrary and quirky as that of an imaginative child. Whenever something breaks his order—whether it’s son his cursing, the neighbor’s bloodhounds wreaking havoc, or the furnace going up in flames—he seems as disappointed as he is angry, reminded once again that he’s actually, and unfortunately, in charge.
Then, he wins a contest and receives, in his own words, a “major award.” A major award that remains anonymous until it’s delivered to the Parker household shortly after dinner, nailed into a refrigerator-sized crate.
“It could be a bowling alley,” The Old Man surmises, giddy. He dives into the crate, flinging packing straw (the precursor to peanuts, apparently) at his family with abandon. It’s Christmas morning, come two weeks early. Whatever is at the bottom of this crate is more than a major award. It’s the second star to the right, and straight on until morning. It’s the proof that a finicky furnace, or boiled cabbage for dinner two nights in a row, are all worth it. That no matter what, the universe—Santa—God—gives us exactly what we want, when we need it most.
“It’s… a lamp!” the old man exclaims. A lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg, down to the fishnet stocking and the black high-heel.
The Old Man is ecstatic. Mrs. Parker is horrified. Randy loses interest. Ralphie runs his hand up the lamp’s calf, reaches a finger up to the nebulous place between its disembodied porcelain thighs. Mr. Parker plugs the lamp in, then runs outside to direct Mrs. Parker as she centers it in the front window. Neighbors gather. No one can tear their eyes off this bulb of bright glitz gleaming like that famous star from Orient Are, this scandalous stand-in for a Christmas tree.
Ironically enough, the leg lamp is as much a symbol of consumer goods as the good ol’ Tannenbaum has become. In the 1966 novel that inspired A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd writes, “All popular non-alcoholic drinks were known in those days by a simple generic term: ‘Pop.’ What [Nehi Pop] made was simple ‘orange pop.’ [Nehi’s] company trademark, seen everywhere, was a silk-stockinged lady’s leg, realistically flesh-colored, wearing a black spike-heeled slipper. The knee was crooked slightly and the leg was shown to the middle of the thigh. That was all. No face; no torso; no dress—just a stark, disembodied, provocative leg. The name of [Nehi Pop, pronounced “knee-high”] was a play on words, involving the lady’s knee. Even today in the windows of dusty, fly-specked Midwestern grocery stores and pool rooms, this lady’s leg may yet be seen.”
For a while, the lamp beams from the front window, until Mrs. Parker breaks it, and the family brings home a Christmas tree. This foils and foreshadows Christmas morning, when Ralph, like his father, receives his own “major award.”
After all the other disappointing gifts have been opened and discarded into a jumbled pile, Ralph unwraps a final present from his father: a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. “I had one when I was his age,” The Old Man explains to Mrs. Parker sheepishly. As Ralphie fills it with BBs, his dad looks on, unconsciously mimicking every one of his movements.
If there’s ever been a well-known children’s story that’s actually, secretly for adults, it’s Peter Pan. Kids want to grow up. Kids envision adulthood as a glowing light at the end of a tunnel, a bright beacon guiding them through the slog of homework, chores, and pink bunny costumes. Adults, they’re convinced, eat junk for every meal, never have to go to school, and can spend money on anything they want. For adults, every day is Christmas, and they’ll do anything in their power to keep kids from joining in the fun.
The second star to the right, and straight on until morning, is what adults, not kids, daydream about. We remember childhood as a time outside of responsibility, when anything was possible and everything was magical. For children, we’re convinced, every day is Christmas, just minutes away from unwrapping the best gifts life has to offer. Don’t grow up! we beg. You don’t know how good you have it!
As soon as he takes the gun outside to test its mettle, Ralph has to grapple with a very grown-up feeling: getting what you want, and finding out it’s not as great as you thought it would be. Ralph takes aim at a target on a metal sign, but the BB ricochets, knocking his glasses off his face. Not quite the scrappy-hero-saving-the-day moment he’d dreamed of. He rustles up some tears and decides to tell his mother an icicle did it. Strangely, it’s the least funny moment in the film. We know Ralphie’s trying to hold on to whatever magical powers he imbued on the gun. And can we blame him? He’s only 9. He has plenty of time to shoot his eye out. Plenty of time to realize that most magical and mysterious messages from the universe are just crummy ads.
But that’s okay, because he’s not alone. In my favorite Christmas Story moment, Mrs. Parker sends Ralphie to his room—“I want you getting right into bed and I don’t want to see the light on, you are being punished so no comic book reading, I’m gonna come in there and if I see any lights on… don’t you give me that look young man you’re going to get it!”—after washing his mouth out with soap. She watches him disappear down the hallway, then steps back into the bathroom, holding the bar of Lifebuoy. With a whimsical little shrug and what appears to be a smile, she hesitantly sticks it in her mouth. She gets it: There are no adults, not really.
Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.