Starting on Monday, for twenty-four hours straight, American families will have the opportunity to watch a nine-year-old boy request a gun for Christmas nearly 350 times during TBS’s annual A Christmas Story marathon. But in 2018, 35 years after the film’s theatrical release, in a country where gun violence and school shootings dominate headlines, how has this seemingly pro-gun Christmas movie remained revered by so many? More urgently, when children like Tamir Rice have been shot and killed for playing with toy guns, how are we able to continue laughing at the sight of a youngster obsessively trying to get his hands on a faux-weapon of his own? The answer requires looking at the real messages of A Christmas Story. This film is not pro-gun, and despite its cult-nostalgia status, it’s actually anti-nostalgia.
Set in a generic version of the 1940s, the movie chronicles Ralphie Parker, a nine-year-old kid who dreams of receiving a BB gun for Christmas “with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.” He asks his parents, teacher, and even runs his request up the chain to the head honcho himself, a department store Santa Claus, but is met with a consistent refrain: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” In the end, Ralphie’s Old Man comes through, giving his long-suffering son the coveted item, and in short order, the youngster makes his way into the backyard, shoots a paper target affixed to a metal sign, and were it not for his glasses, would have caught a ricocheting pellet right in his eye. Basically, the message of the movie is clear: the gun is dangerous and the kid got lucky.
Meanwhile, in 2018, the film is dodging bullets in the form of contemporary internet hoaxes. Last month a viral meme, cited to the dubiously named MomusFeed News, claimed that the annual marathon was called off, not because of the gun issue, but because of its depiction of schoolyard bullies. TBS swiftly responded that the widely-circulated rumor was a hoax, but its very existence points to the ways in which America’s favorite holiday film may be increasingly complicated for some to enjoy in today’s world.
At its heart, the movie remains enjoyable by those of all political persuasions simply because it depicts a nostalgic fantasy, a long-lost America where a kid with a gun can only pose a threat to his own eye and not a classroom full of peers, and emergency services are called to a school because of a “triple-dog-dare” with a flagpole gone awry, and the biggest injury is to the tip of a tongue and one’s own pride. The film is not set in the modern day, or anything bearing too strong of a resemblance to it, and that distance is central to what makes it so enjoyable for so many. For kids watching today, the children in A Christmas Story, who manage to survive each day without Snapchat and Fortnite, seem eternally set in the Dark Ages. And the same was true for me when I watched my own problematic version of A Christmas Story; The Little Rascals.
I must have been only five or six years old the first time I sat down with my parents and watched The Little Rascals, Hal Roach’s inimitable Our Gang short comedies. I remember being excited to watch something starring kids, that my parents both enjoyed watching when they were kids, and even before the cassette was consumed by the VHS player, I knew I was destined to like it.
But our viewing came with a verbal asterisk. Because the comedies were made a very long time ago, my father explained, some of the jokes failed to live up to today’s standards of what is socially acceptable. Even worse, he continued, many of those insensitive jokes would be made at the expense of characters who more-or-less looked like us. Growing up as a black kid in a socioeconomically-diverse suburb in northern New Jersey, I was always surrounded by people of different races and ethnicities, but Our Gang was one of my first forays into what it means to be seen as different. By viewing Buckwheat, Farina, and Stymie, I had a window into another time and having that context helped me to see the films for what they were, relics that simultaneously showed something great about the simplicity, and complications, of America’s past.
It’s easy to draw a comparison between A Christmas Story and the Our Gang comedies, as both show a slice of life for children in a similar time period. By being honest with today’s children about the benefits and limitations of that time period, that for all the reductive and romanticized talk of making America great again, there were also some negative aspects to that period in our collective history.
This is not a contemporary left-wing interpretation of the film by any means and, in several aspects, A Christmas Story directly comments on the dangers of over-romanticizing the “good old days.” Yes, Ralphie’s Old Man sees nothing wrong with getting his son a BB gun and teaching him how to properly load the pellets and use it, but what is just as significant is what happens immediately after, in the snowy backyard where the kid goes to test out his new gift.
As historian Eugene B. Bergmann astutely observes, Jean Shepherd, who narrates the film and whose short stories inform the narrative, notoriously hated nostalgia. It is for that reason that careful observers will note that the metal sign responsible for Ralphie’s comeuppance has the words “Golden Age” sprawled across it, a visual reminder that the good old days may be a fun place to visit, but is also a minefield.
This moment in the film highlights one of the film’s understated takeaways: the past can be an enjoyable place to revisit but you ignore its lessons at your risk. The older and wiser adults advocate for Ralphie to opine for something safer and more responsible — “How about a nice football?” — an obvious acknowledgment of the importance of gun safety, and a touching throwback to a time wherein a village could help to raise a child instead of people shutting themselves off in their homes, offices, Netflix queues, and handheld devices. Even in 1983, the film’s director, Bob Clark, was not hoping that children run to their nearest Toys ‘R’ Us and pick up a pretend rifle.
A Christmas Story also pokes fun of the now-popular idea of a mythological “good guy with a gun.” In the film’s first fantasy sequence, Ralphie imagines his house being burglarized by Black Bart and his band of brigands, all comically clad in white and black horizontal-striped shirts. As we watch his parents and little brother Randy huddled together in fear, dependent only on the little boy armed with a toy gun and a lot of bravado, it’s clear we’re supposed to be laughing at the situation, and those who think their diminutive weapons can successfully stave off an organized attack.
So, to reduce A Christmas Story to a story about a boy and his gun does the film a disservice. The enduring appeal of the film is that it depicts a fantasy that bears a striking resemblance to real life: children secretly use profanity, botch opportunities to please their parents, and spin their wheels trying to find someone to tell them “yes” when the clear answer is “no.” The movie is cinematic proof of the theory that the more something is personal, the more it is universal.
This is why, even in today’s landscape, A Christmas Story endures, and it would be even better if parents used the annual marathon as a springboard to discuss how times have changed in the three-and-a-half decades since the film’s theatrical release. Our public discourse around guns have changed and with good reason. The risks associated with our children being comfortable with guns were always there, but over the past several decades, too many parents’ worst fears have been realized.
That doesn’t mean we should turn away from our stories of Christmases past, but fairly acknowledge that the same is no longer true of our present.
Editor’s note: Caseen Gaines is the author of the book: A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic (ECW Press, 2013). He is also the author of books on the making of Back to the Future, The Dark Crystal, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse.