Peter Billingsley will soon reprise his iconic role as Ralphie from A Christmas Story. The air rifle-loving kid is all grown up in HBO Max’s upcoming sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas. But, even if he wasn’t returning, Ralphie always has been and always will be a part of our yearly holiday celebrations. The original film is a timeless classic that endures because it understands Christmas isn’t about just one day, one moment, or one present. It’s about everything—both good and bad, mundane and exciting—a kid experiences in the lead-up to December 25.
Some Christmas movie classics rely heavily on plot, like The Santa Clause or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Other iconic films of the season are defined by big emotional payoffs, like Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life. But A Christmas Story does these things without having some huge story, instead showing a slice of a normal family’s life. And, rather than a single signature moment, it’s a collection of memorable scenes and vignettes. That’s because the movie uses Ralphie’s longing for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle as a barebones foundation to recreate the feeling of the entire holiday season. And for a kid that feeling is never limited to a single day.
When you’re young, Christmas is always about more than one date on the calendar. It has to be. Christmas morning wouldn’t mean nearly as much without all the anticipation of it. This is the fundamental aspect of the holiday A Christmas Story gets right more than maybe any other Christmas film. We re-experience the holiday the best way possible, through the eyes of a kid. We’re there with Ralphie as his family buys a tree and decorates the house. We’re along for trips to the store and to meet Santa. And, most importantly, we’re with him as he dreams of his one perfect gift.
But the movie also perfectly captures the other side of the Christmas season experience. With great anticipation comes great frustration. Looking forward to Christmas also means sitting in class counting down every painfully slow minute until December 25. It means enduring long lines to see Saint Nick and opening horrible presents from well-intentioned aunts. Just as it means living with exhausted parents whose enthusiasm for Christmas to be over matches your excitement for it to never end. And it means knowing the fear you might not get the most important thing you asked for.
And it’s not like life stops in December just because Christmas is around the corner, which A Christmas Story completely understands. Children still have their normal problems to navigate while waiting for the big day. That means dealing with bullies, siblings, friends, schoolwork, teachers, parents, and stupid radio contests that turn out to be big scams! (Sorry, “Drink More Ovaltine” is an all-time cinematic crime. I’ll always be furious on Ralphie’s behalf.)
For kids, all of those elements make the experience of Christmas so much bigger than just experiencing Christmas. There’s no easy through line for those 25 days that a single plot can ever fully capture. And to define the holiday by any one signature moment or present is to ignore all the anticipation, excitement, frustration, and dread that make the entire month an event unto itself.
By letting us live with Ralphie as he navigates all of that A Christmas Story has ensured its place in the Christmas movie pantheon forever. No matter how old he (or we) get, we can always relive what it was really like to be a kid during the holiday season. Especially the years we remember most, the years when we got the gift we most wanted under the tree.
Of course, A Christmas Story wouldn’t be the timeless classic it is if it didn’t also capture one last aspect of the holiday every kid also knows all too well. Sometimes the one present you wanted wasn’t what you hoped. That’s why the buildup to Christmas always the best part of the holiday – anticipation isn’t defined by disappointment.
Hopefully, though, when your perfect gift was anything but, you didn’t actually shoot your eye out either.
Editor’s Note: Legendary Pictures produces A Christmas Story Christmas. Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.
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