How ‘A Christmas Story’ Saved My Family’s Christmas

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A Christmas Story, the 1983 comedy film that was released 30 years ago today, was not always considered a modern holiday classic. Based on Jean Shepard’s collection of short stories, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the film was a moderate success at the box office, making about $19 million. I didn’t see the movie until about 11 years later, when I was in sixth grade; one of our teachers brought it in for the class to watch the week before we broke for the holidays, on one of those days when she had given up on trying to get us kids to retain any information just before we planned to gorge ourselves on holiday dinners, candy, and intricately wrapped presents.

It soon became a staple for that annual last week of classes. One could easily dismiss the film as a kids’ movie — it does, after all, follow nine-year-old Ralphie Parker, told through the narration of his adult self (voiced by Shepard himself) in the weeks leading up to Christmas in a halcyon, Norman Rockwellian town in Indiana in the early 1940s. It’s the kind of nostalgia bait that has gained an audience of baby boomers who were born and raised during the same period. My parents were born in the early ’50s, and they grew up in the same rural Virginia town where I was raised. So while the Midwestern setting didn’t ring exactly true, the film’s general sensibility still evoked that shared postwar experience: scary Santas in locally owned department stores; the dwindling prominence of radio dramas like Little Orphan Annie and the growing popularity of TV serials like The Lone Ranger; and the familiar nuclear family unit made up of a gruff, domineering, blundering father and an exhausted, frazzled homemaker mother.

The film’s popularity grew once it was licensed for TV, and the family of Turner television stations brought A Christmas Story a wider audience beyond those who had discovered it via home video. It was in 1997 that TNT began its 24 Hours of a A Christmas Story tradition, during which the film was broadcast 12 times in a row starting on Christmas Eve. That was also the first time my parents saw the movie — at the behest of me and my younger brother. My father in particular fell in love with it, and after watching it at least three times in a row the night before Christmas and the following morning, while my brother and I ripped open boxes of presents with wild abandon in the formal living room (which remained untouched every other day of the year), he was hooked. That Christmas night, which we spent with my parents’ best friends — my godparents — and their large extended family, my dad succeeded at getting the channel changed from whatever football game the other dads were watching to TNT. Every 20 minutes or so, he’d yell at us from the living room. “The dogs stole the turkey again!” “He beat up the bully again!” He’d stagger into the dining room where the rest of us were finishing our meal, seemingly exhausted from laughing so much. “That poor kid got his tongue stuck to the damn pole again,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes.

A Christmas Story became a part of our Christmas tradition, and every year we’d hear updates about the movie coming from the living room. The first year was a novelty, the second funny, the third endearing, and the fourth… well, how many times can one really watch the same movie 12 times in a row? As I got older — became a sarcastic teenager who, you know, hated EVERYTHING around me — I started to resent the movie and the annoying obsession with it. By the time I was in college and had finally started to break free from the confines of the conservative, rural, small-town surroundings I came to hate, Christmases became nothing more than a chore. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and hang out with my friends and share stories about how annoying our parents were and how there were loud children all over the place screaming and running through the halls and our poor grandparents had gotten too old and hard of hearing and mean and they were no longer fun to be around.

You’d think I’d have grown out of it by the time I was out of college and living in Chicago, where I had finally gotten to experience the excitement and possibilities of living in a big city. I also started coming out to friends after meeting my first boyfriend, and while none of them were surprised or really cared at all, I kept it hidden from my parents and everyone else back home. I knew I had to tell them eventually, but I wasn’t ready yet. And so I brought that home with me, and sullenly parked myself in front of the TV, eating the homemade party mix my godmother made every year (with Crispix rather than Chex — an important distinction), and tried to control the remote until I finally conceded to switching the channel back to TNT to watch that kid get his tongue stuck to the damn pole again.

A few weeks after I returned to Chicago for a second year after Christmas at home, my mother called with some news: my father woke up one morning in January with jaundice. It was a sight that scared both of my parents — they knew something was wrong — and my father, in a testament to how small my hometown was, managed to get an appointment with his doctor that morning (it helps to have gone to high school with the nurses on staff). After some tests, they discovered a growth on his pancreas, and after surgery and a biopsy we discovered he had cancer. Suddenly, my father’s mortality became something solid and real for the first time.

I had only known one person growing up who had lost a parent; most of my exposure to that had come from movies and TV shows, and it was always something that had happened off-screen before the story started. All of a sudden, I was about to be that character.

For a year, my father went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and I made several trips home not knowing exactly how long I had with him. It was a rough year; that first relationship ended quickly, and another fell apart by the end of the year. And I still hadn’t told my parents yet, mostly because I was struggling to figure myself out first. By November, when they came to visit me in Chicago one last time, my father seemed to be not just in good spirits but also in good health. The year’s worth of treatments had left him thin and tired, but a doctor’s checkup a week later showed that the cancer had been eliminated and he was in remission. I came home for Christmas a few weeks later hoping that we did, indeed, have plenty more holidays to look forward to.

Despite the good news from the previous month, it was clear that the treatments had taken a toll on him. Christmas was quieter than usual, and while we went ahead with our usual traditions and made it to my godparents’ house on Christmas day, none of us exuded the usual excitement of years past. And while A Christmas Story played on a loop as usual, the check-ins from my father — the dogs, the bullies, the pole — were faint.

By January, I had gotten the call from my mother that the cancer had already returned, and we began to prepare.

A few weeks after my mom called me, I sent my parents an email. I was too scared to call, both because of my parents’ possible reactions and because of the emotions that would come out of me. “I’m kind of tired of feeling like I have to hide that I’m gay from you, or anyone else for that matter,” I wrote. The response, in the form of an email from my mom, was nice and positive, and we sort of left it at that.

My dad died in May. Months later, I found myself, once again, single, having just broken up with the first guy I ever really loved. I was also unemployed and working a few hours a week at a terrible temp job. I was not particularly excited about going home for Christmas that year, because my personal life seemed to be a disaster, and I would have to deal with the other elephants that would be taking up space in every room. I had a terrible feeling about going home, expecting a major blow-out.

And we had one. I can’t even remember how it started, but the tensions in the house rose on Christmas Eve and my mother and I ended up having a huge screaming match, during which I accused her of resenting me for being gay. Of course, I couldn’t help but blame myself; I did, after all, refuse to talk to my parents about it for so long, and even after I wrote an email to them revealing it (which included the suggestion that I wasn’t defined by being gay, a notion I definitely disagree with now) I never talked about it. For all I knew, my mother hadn’t told anyone in the family about it; everyone had for years gotten to the point where it was understood that it was unnecessary to ask any questions about my personal life for fear that the response would be something no one particularly wanted to hear. I was in despair — I missed my dad, I missed my boyfriend, and all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there and back to Chicago, where I felt more comfortable not just with my surroundings but with myself.

The next morning, the tension was still there, but we went about our business as usual. My mom, brother, and I opened our presents. We watched TV. We visited my father’s mother at her home and were surprised at how incredibly not depressing it was. And we made it to my godparents’ for dinner, where my mother and I stayed on either side of the house — she in the kitchen, me parked in front of the TV and the party mix. Someone eventually switched the channel from football to A Christmas Story, and for the rest of the day we heard the familiar sounds of the movie coming from the next room. At one point, one of the younger kids shouted, “Hey! The kid is about to stick his tongue to the pole!” A few of us shuffled into the room to watch the melee ensue.

Despite the major part of our family that was missing from the scene, it was still familiar, still comfortable, and for the first time in years I watched A Christmas Story in a different way. It didn’t feel like the annoying movie that I had spent a decade trying to ignore. There was no eye-rolling. Instead, I laughed, because it’s one of those great cinematic scenes that, after years of re-watching, had become impossible to forget. And everything, for the first time since my dad died, seemed like it was on its way to getting back to normal.