“A Christmas Story Christmas” Story

I’m always suspicious of people who claim to have no holiday traditions, although mine tend more towards “personal holiday observances, usually based around specific dates, that no one else really participates in.” I wrote about a bunch of them in some of my very first entries on this website, spreading them over three 2008 entries at a total length that would barely be half of a single 2020s-era entry. Obviously, much has changed since then. I’ve grown more long-winded in my website pieces, and more lax in observing many of my old traditions. However, the following five remain pretty iron-clad.

1. No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. But as soon as the dishes are cleared away, I consider it open season for “Good King Wenceslas.” The Christmas Spotify playlist is usually on the car stereo driving home from Thanksgiving dinner.

2. Christmas lights on the house no later than the Sunday after Thanksgiving (weather permitting). This is often something I really have to force myself to do, tearing myself away from my fireside end of the sofa, my book, and the muted football game on TV to clamber around on a rickety ladder and almost plummet to a paralyzing injury at intervals that come closer together as the years roll on.

3. (Real) Christmas tree acquired and decorated on whatever weekend is closest to December 10. Any sooner and it dries up no matter how carefully I check the water level, any later and why bother? 

4. Making a shepherd’s pie at some point in December (usually between the 20th and 23rd).

5. Having a bunch of Christmas-themed stuff on the TV. Cheesy variety specials, Christmas episodes of sitcoms, classic movies, you name it.

I say “having it on” instead of “watching,” because it’s usually just atmospheric background to my reading, computer gaming, or puttering around the house. I am a world-class putterer, and lately I’ve taken to doing it with my half-moon reading glasses perched on the end of my nose. Jesus, I’m old. Am I really the same person who used to go to Primus concerts with dyed blue-black hair (Manic Panic!) and army surplus pants tucked into shin-high black boots? I did scrupulously avoid the mosh pit, so I guess I was always kind of soft. But at least I was young and soft. (That didn’t sound quite right, but I’m leaving it in.)

One of the movies in the holiday rotation is A Christmas Story. Little regarded upon its initial theatrical release in November 1983, it has since become a holiday television staple in households across the country. So popular were its frequent airings on cable stations that Turner Broadcasting began showing it marathon-style — “24 Hours of A Christmas Story” — in 1997. For the last 25 years, starting at 8pm Christmas Eve and concluding at 8pm on Christmas Day, you could tune in and get your fill of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.”) You’d be joining roughly fifty million others.

Like Christmas music, the viewing of Christmas material on TV is strictly forbidden until after Thanksgiving. But this year, I violated tradition by watching A Christmas Story way outside of its normally-accepted viewing slot because I wanted to watch its brand-new sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas, the day it dropped on HBO Max. Watching a new sequel without a re-watch of the original is a violation of the Holy Bee Code.

As the consistently high annual ratings for the marathon have proven, the Christmas Story phenomenon is a powerful thing, and it’s woven firmly into the fabric of American culture. Even if you haven’t seen the film, it might feel like you have — it’s the story of nine-year-old Ralphie and his quest to get a BB gun for Christmas, while also dealing with his perpetually hassled mom and intimidating dad (only ever referred to as “the Old Man”), along with various other childhood dramas. You’ve probably heard about the notorious “fra-gee-lay” leg lamp, the tongue frozen to the flagpole, and the oft-repeated “you’ll shoot your eye out” catchphrase. 

Full disclosure — I am not any kind of die-hard Christmas Story fanatic. It’s just tossed in with all the other holiday viewing for me. If it hasn’t been a part of a family tradition for years, this mild little period-piece comedy may actually be kind of a hard sell for new viewers who will undoubtedly wonder what all the fuss is about. But I did grow up with A Christmas Story, and I did get a warm tingle when I heard they were making a proper sequel. (And it just dawned on me that my Subscribe button is emblazoned with “I triple-dog dare you.” Maybe I am a die-hard fan.)

Wait, a “proper” sequel? Were there improper sequels? Yes, actually. Three of them, and they all failed for their own reasons, but mainly due to the issue that A Christmas Story Christmas intends to correct. 

Never much liked the original poster, which failed to capture the true tone of the film — it made it look far too “wacky” and/or “zany,” the kind of movie where you’re just waiting for someone to get hit in the nuts and go cross-eyed.

The Christmas Story juggernaut started with Jean Shepherd (“Shep” to his legion of fans), a fixture of New York late-night talk radio from 1955 to 1977. Shep built a dedicated following by spinning lengthy first-person yarns about his alter ego, “Ralphie,” Ralphie’s family (“the Parkers”), and his experiences growing up in America’s heartland in a bygone era. You can get a taste of Shepherd’s engaging vocal style from his narration of A Christmas Story, portraying the unseen-but-constantly-heard adult Ralphie. 

Although he insisted the tales were pure fiction and not autobiographical, elements of Shepherd’s real life always crept in. He really did have friends named Flick and Schwartz and a kid brother named Randy, he did go to Warren G. Harding Elementary School, and the name of his actual hometown — Hammond, Indiana (just across the state line from Chicago) — isn’t too far off from the fictional Midwestern town, “Hohman, Indiana,” that he created for his stories. He made the character of Ralphie a few years younger than himself to better align Ralphie’s childhood and adolescence with the Depression and the war years.

Jean Shepherd

What really blew people’s minds was that Shepherd told these stories off the top of the head. He prided himself on never relying on pre-written scripts, and could extemporize, ad-lib, spin off into side stories, and then tie it all up in a neat conclusion right as his closing music began to play. As his popularity grew, he began speaking tours of college campuses where audiences could verify this skill with their own eyes. 

Someone finally asked Shep to put some of his favorites down in writing, and one of the first stories published was the one that provided the framework for A Christmas Story. “Duel in the Snow or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” appeared in Playboy magazine in 1964. (Playboy also sent him as a correspondent to tour with the Beatles for a few days later that year. A middle-aged jazz snob by then, Shep never warmed to their music, but admitted they were great fun to hang out with.)

Enough stories appeared in Playboy over the next two years to compile into a book. The result, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, was published in 1966. Often described as a “story collection” or “anthology,” Shep always proudly referred to it as a novel. Despite this claim, it is pretty episodic, with the self-contained stories appearing as reminiscences between adult Ralphie and Flick during Ralphie’s return visit to his hometown. Only “Duel in the Snow” is Christmas-themed, and the other stories bounce around chronologically, with Ralphie depicted as anywhere from seven to fourteen, depending on the chapter. 

Two sequels, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1971) and A Fistful of Fig Newtons (1981) continue the mixed bag of stories about a (mostly older) Ralphie. 

Shepherd’s radio monologue about Flick getting his tongue frozen to a flagpole (a story that never made it into print) turned aspiring young filmmaker Bob Clark into a lifelong Shepherd fan. The eventual Christmas Story director contacted Shep as early as 1970-71 about making a film based on his stories, but it was a long road to production. They got as far as writing a screenplay, but no studio was interested. 

The first attempt to tell a Ralphie Parker tale that made it to a screen was the TV movie The Phantom of the Open Hearth, which aired on December 23, 1976 as part of the PBS anthology series Visions. Shep wrote the script, and established a formula: a main throughline based on a key story from one of his books (in this case, the title story of Wanda Hickey), supplemented by secondary plot threads drawn from other stories (the leg lamp story from In God We Trust is first seen onscreen here) and from various unpublished monologues, all tied together by his voiceover narration.

James Broderick, the first Old Man

The Phantom of the Open Hearth led to two (or three, kind of) more PBS adaptations, and they’re just this side of watchable if you can handle dingy, PBS-level production values, a much slower pace, and a few glaring differences from our beloved Christmas Story. The PBS Ralphie (re-cast each time) is depicted as an athletic, self-assured high school junior — a far cry from the awkward, needy, bespectacled little kid we’re used to. Flick comes off as a potentially dangerous criminal thug. Craggy character actor James Broderick (known for the ABC drama Family from the same era) is no Darren McGavin, but makes a pretty decent Old Man. (Just like no one is going to surpass Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, you have to hand it to Brian Cox, who was the first actor to play the character — and did a good job — in the 1986 TV movie Manhunter.) Barbara Bolton as Mrs. Parker is the only lead actor to appear in all three, but she doesn’t exude a lot of personality, and only reminds the viewer of how much spark Melinda Dillon brought to the role. And, like most 1970s productions set in a previous era, no one would commit to period-accurate haircuts, so everyone kept their bushy ‘70s hair. (Another example: any given episode of M*A*S*H.) (The Phantom of the Open Hearth was re-cast and re-shot as a possible pilot for an ABC series in 1978, but it was never shown.)

Broderick and a way-too-studly Matt Dillon

Another PBS anthology series, American Playhouse, aired the second Shepherd adaptation. The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters hit TV screens on March 16, 1982, based around more In God We Trust stories. James Broderick returns as the Old Man (it was one of his final roles, he died later that year), and the characterization of Ralphie as “cool teen” reaches its zenith — he is played by none other than Matt Dillon. Like its predecessor, The Great American Fourth of July is acceptable, but nothing great. I was particularly disappointed that one of my favorite Shepherd stories, “The Endless Streetcar Ride Into the Night and the Tinfoil Noose” (about Ralphie on a blind date), was staged and shot in such a clunky and cumbersome way that it drained the story of its slow-building tension and brilliant comedic payoff. 

Katherine Kahmi as Josephine Cosnowski.

The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski was based mainly on Wanda Hickey material, and it aired on American Playhouse on February 11, 1985, after A Christmas Story had been ignored in theaters, but just before its big rediscovery as a TV treasure. Romance is a notch below the first two in terms of budget, humor, and performances. Despite the presence of a few vintage cars and kitchen appliances, all attempts to give it a period feel have been abandoned. The object of Ralphie’s affection looks more like Brenda Walsh from 90210 than anyone who would have breathed 1940s air. The usually reliable George Coe is a low-key, somewhat placid Old Man, with none of the bluster the part requires. (Coe is known to a later generation as the voice of Woodhouse on Archer.)

Bob Clark

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public, someone once said (it evidently wasn’t H.L. Mencken), and sure enough, Bob Clark’s Porky’s was a box office smash in 1982, giving Clark the clout to make whatever he wanted as his next project. He chose the Christmas-themed script he wrote with Shepherd many years earlier. Clark, who got his start in low-budget exploitation and slasher flicks, will likely never be in the Pantheon of Great Directors. He usually painted in the broadest strokes possible, and had a tendency to aim low in his comedy. But A Christmas Story has a subtlety that most of his other films lack. He was a potentially solid director (his pre-Porky’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche Murder By Decree was quite good) who had the misfortune to have directed mostly terrible films: The powerfully stupid Porky’s and its even worse sequel, feeble comedies like Rhinestone and Loose Cannons, whatever the hell Turk 182! was supposed to be, and the absolutely execrable Baby Geniuses, which played at the theater where I once worked and inspired more walk-outs than any other movie I can name. And those are just his movies people may have heard of. But not everyone can be Stanley Kubrick (luckily for Shelley Duvall), and Clark, by all accounts a genuinely nice man, had a personal warmth comes through in A Christmas Story’s informative commentary on the DVD. The kids in the cast loved him (unlike The Goonies’ cast, who were always a little afraid of grumpy old Richard Donner), and he clearly poured his heart into A Christmas Story. I was very sad to hear of his tragic death in a head-on collision on the Pacific Coast Highway back in 2007.

The film was shot from January to March of 1983, mostly in and around Toronto. The department store scenes were done at the actual Higbee’s in Cleveland. Another Cleveland location was the Parker house, located at 3159 West 11th Street. The interior scenes were shot on a Toronto soundstage, so the Cleveland location was for exterior shots only. It was purchased in 2004 by a California entrepreneur (who specialized in the production of replica leg lamps) and restored to resemble the house — inside and out — as it appeared in the film. Adjoining houses were converted into museum and gift shop space. (As of this writing, the whole complex is up for sale.)

A Christmas Story’s studio, MGM, did not seem to have much confidence in the final result. They put it into theaters in mid-November with little promotion, and it was mostly gone from screens by Christmas week itself. It wasn’t the box-office dud that legend later described it as, but its success was modest at best. It picked up a little traction when it showed on HBO and was released on VHS in 1985. Then came the turning point — a near-broke MGM sold most of its film library to Ted Turner in 1986, and A Christmas Story began its run on Turner-owned stations that holiday season. That’s when my family first watched it. It already felt like tradition by the following year. But don’t call it nostalgic. Both Clark and Shepherd insisted the film does not fit that description. “It’s not nostalgia. It’s an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire,” said Clark. Maybe that’s why newcomers to the movie are sometimes a little put off.

I won’t dwell too much more on the original film, because everyone’s seen it, and at this time of year the internet proliferates with “25 Fun Facts About A Christmas Story”-type articles. (“#18. Jack Nicholson was almost cast as the Old Man.”*) But allow me to take a moment to discuss my favorite Christmas Story-related topic, and that is the performance of Darren McGavin. My own Old Man had an unerring ability to sniff out whatever was the most interesting thing on TV on any given night. Old movies, big games, PBS documentaries, comedy shows, whatever — he could zero in on the coolest viewing option effortlessly. One night when I was about seven or eight, he was watching a re-broadcast of Tribes, a 1970 made-for-TV movie about the clash between a rebellious hippie draftee, played by Jan-Michael Vincent, and his brutal boot camp drill instructor, who maybe isn’t so brutal after all. I was struck by the ferocity of the drill instructor and the intensity of the actor playing him. The actor was Darren McGavin, and when I first saw A Christmas Story a few years later, I knew there was something familiar about the Old Man. It wasn’t until a few more viewings that I matched him up with the earlier role that had captivated me. 

Darren McGavin, veteran of Broadway, the Golden Age of Television, and dozens of films

People look at me funny when I say Darren McGavin as the Old Man is one of the greatest screen performances of the 1980s (and I say it a lot, usually unprompted). But watch him carefully next time you see the movie, and you might just agree with me. It’s an amazing physical performance — he commits to the role with his entire body. His little half-jig dance when he finds out he won a “major award,” his paraoxysm of frustration when busted sneaking a piece of turkey, and so many others. There was a danger that the part could be played very one-note — all gruffness. But McGavin’s skill (and yes, Clark’s direction) brings out the Old Man’s sweet side. There are little grace notes all over his interactions with Melinda Dillon — the way he leans into her when poking fun at his neighbor’s fake Christmas tree, or looks at her affectionately over his newspaper — that are very revealing.

“Darn thing looks like it was made out of green pipe cleaners…”

And it’s the Old Man who comes through for Ralphie in the end, isn’t it? Getting him that long-coveted BB gun. As Ralphie unwraps it, the Old Man cannot conceal the fact that his glee over giving the gift is equal to Ralphie’s in receiving it.

I believe I mentioned something about improper sequels…

They were mostly improper because they did not include any of the original cast, except for Shepherd himself as the unseen “adult Ralphie” narrator. 

The first one was a remnant of Shepherd’s old deal with PBS — 1988’s Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. A Christmas Story was starting to generate a little heat on cable, and PBS wanted one more TV movie for American Playhouse. To meet Shep’s newly increased asking price, it would be a co-production with Disney, who pumped up the budget in exchange for home video rights. Long-time PBS editor Dick Bartlett (who specialized in Nova episodes) was plopped into the director’s chair. 

Haven of Bliss did an about-face from A Christmas Story by showcasing Shepherd’s more summer-oriented stories. The main plotlines are a search for summer jobs by Ralphie, Flick, and Schwartz, followed by a predictably disastrous family trip to the titular resort, where complications ensue. The two stories don’t mesh at all, and play more like two 45-minute TV shows pieced together. The acting is a mixed bag. Like George Coe, James B. Sikking (Hill Street Blues) is a fine actor, but in this case he’s little more than McGavin Lite. Dorothy Lyman instills Mrs. Parker with a peculiar nasal whine, and a prancing walk reminiscent of Peg Bundy. Whoever is playing Randy plays him as if he’d had some kind of traumatic brain injury. Jerry O’Connell (a few years after playing Vern in Stand By Me) finds the sweet spot and makes a good 14-year-old Ralphie. There are a few moments of genuine wit due to Shepherd’s writing, but one reviewer hit the nail on the head when they called it more like a National Lampoon Vacation movie than a real entry in the Shepherd/Parker saga. Most people were completely unaware of its connection to A Christmas Story until they started watching it and hearing the character names. Dick Bartlett went back to editing Nova.

By the early 1990s, the Christmas Story phenomenon was well under way. Shepherd was seeing the impact of the movie (on the viewing public and on his bank account), and eschewed further TV adaptations to focus on feature films.

After a brief estrangement (Shep was banished from the Christmas Story set for trying to co-direct), Shepherd and Clark re-teamed for 1994’s theatrical release My Summer Story.

Set in the year just after A Christmas Story, we see Ralphie and Randy now played by a pair of Culkins. In 1994, Macaulay Culkin was wrapping up his career as a child actor, but waiting in the wings were younger siblings Kieran and Christian. Take a moment of cognitive dissonance as you consider the fact that one version of Ralphie Parker grew up to be Roman Roy on Succession. (As an adult, Kieran Culkin obviously grew into a genuine talent. But as child actors, I found all the Culkins to be incredibly overrated. There always seemed to be not much going on behind their hooded little eyes.) A wooden Kieran barely gets a chance to register on the audience as Ralphie, because the movie is split between three equal plotlines, and Ralphie only gets one — a new bully has risen to take the place of Scut Farkus (who has been demoted to “toady”), and Ralphie must best him at…toy tops. Whoever knocks the other’s top out of the circle wins. Shep’s stories have always been pretty low-stakes (that’s part of their charm), but this one is so slight it practically dissolves before your eyes. 

Mary Steenburgen does her best with the Mrs. Parker character in another very tepid and forgettable story (“dish night” at the local theater, a Depression-era tradition), but, unexpectedly, it has the best climax of the three.

I’m quite clearly never going to get past my McGavin boosterism to truly accept anyone else as the Old Man, but Charles Grodin could have been an inspired choice. He can be both charming and curmudgeonly, but was probably chosen for his talent for comedic slow-burn rage. Grodin completely mis-reads the role. He delivers his lines in a monotone through clenched teeth, and is generally just unpleasant and uptight. (Even when furious, McGavin’s Old Man always had a limber looseness.) His story is the big set-piece of the film, and it’s also the film’s biggest mistake — an increasingly chaotic and destructive “war” with the Parkers’ hillbilly neighbors, the Bumpuses. The Bumpuses truly work only as off-screen antagonists (with occasional glimpses of their bevy of hound dogs), where the audience’s imagination can run wild. Once you introduce them on-screen, you don’t have much choice other than to do what Bob Clark does here — present them as a collection of hideously grotesque and cliched cartoon stereotypes in filthy overalls.  

Like the original Christmas Story, MGM (in permanent disarray and always on the edge of ruin) did not bother to promote it all that much, and inexplicably re-titled it It Runs in the Family just before release. This led to a Haven of Bliss scenario — audiences were mostly unaware it had any connection to A Christmas Story at all. It bombed so badly you could see the crater from space (returning $71,000 on a $15 million budget). Its original title was restored for its home video release and all subsequent TV showings, but My Summer Story is now almost entirely forgotten. “That one’s a real turkey,” Shepherd remarked.

After hitching his wagon to the world of cinematic adaptations of his work, Jean Shepherd only got to see one post-Christmas Story film come to fruition. He died in 1999, forever altering how the Parker Family saga would be presented. He wouldn’t be around to craft the scripts, and his familiar narration was silenced.

No one wanted to risk anyone missing the significance of the title of the next installment — hence A Christmas Story 2. We were now in the 21st century, the Age of the Internet. And howls of outrage went up across that internet when it was revealed that A Christmas Story 2 was being made. The original was now enshrined as a gem of holiday Americana, and no one wanted its legacy tampered with. With both Shepherd and Clark gone to the Great Higbee’s in the Sky, this looked less like a heartfelt continuation and more like a cynical cash grab. Production went ahead anyway, despite the internet’s ire, and the film was released direct-to-DVD by Warner Home Video in October of 2012.

Folks, this time, the internet was right. Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss was a well-intentioned misfire. My Summer Story was a forgettable mistake. 

A Christmas Story 2 is an unmitigated disaster. 

The plot? Teenage Ralphie wants a used car. The Old Man? Daniel Stern (?!). Not only horribly miscast, but given almost nothing to do. The rest of the cast? Non-entities. The narration? Done poorly by the film’s screenwriter, Nat Mauldin. The overall tone? Trashy slapstick, with a blaring score to match. (Much of the comedy is just a repetition of the original’s gags, only louder and crasser.)

The whole saga could have stopped there…but in early 2022 word got out that another sequel was in the making. This time, there were no howls of outrage (well, maybe a few — it’s the internet after all) because this time, they were bringing back as many of the original cast as they could, and moving the time period forward thirty-plus years. Outrage changed into cautious optimism. This could work. Especially considering the cast would once again include Peter Billingsley, the original Ralphie. He would also be one of the film’s producers, and was co-credited with the story. It seemed people felt that if they couldn’t have Shepherd or Clark, then at least Billingsley could probably be trusted with honoring the legacy. It would be called A Christmas Story Christmas (again, not taking chances with the title.)

Peter Billingsley had become a successful producer after he wrapped up his childhood acting career, working frequently with Jon Favreau. (Billingsley produced Favreau’s Elf and Iron Man, among many other projects. “Peter makes seven figures whenever he walks out the door,” remarked co-star Scott Schwartz.) Darren McGavin had died in 2006, and Melinda Dillon retired from acting the following year. The kid cast — Ian Petrella (Randy), Scott Schwartz (Flick), R.D. Robb (Schwartz), and Zack Ward (Scut Farkus) — all agreed to reprise their roles as adults. Dillon’s role as Mrs. Parker would be taken over by Julie Hagerty. Former animator Clay Kaytis would direct this as his second live-action feature (his first was The Christmas Chronicles, so at least his holiday bona fides were in place.) The owners of the restored “Christmas Story House and Museum” would not allow the buildings to be used for a film shoot, so the entire block of snowy suburban Cleveland was painstakingly re-created…in Hungary. In fact, the whole movie was shot in Hungary and Bulgaria to keep costs down. 

The development that drives the story is the death of the Old Man just before Christmas (no need to re-cast, smart move). Ralphie, who had been taking a year off to write a novel, must now return with his wife and kids from his big-city life in Chicago to his hometown, and take over as Christmas patriarch. A running theme is how much the Old Man loved Christmas, which at first doesn’t seem to match up with the rather cranky Old Man we remember. But I direct you again to McGavin’s performance, and to watch for those little tells. (I especially like his child-like rush to get to the Christmas tree lot — “If we don’t hurry, we’re going to miss all the good trees!”) Of course the Old Man loved Christmas. The story’s monkey-wrench obstacle is that all of the near-broke family’s Christmas presents are stolen from their accidentally left-open car trunk.

Erinn Hayes (great on the medical drama spoof Children’s Hospital) imbues the character of Ralphie’s wife, Sandy, with a few odd quirks of her own, and a lot of patience for her husband. Billingsley’s grown-up Ralphie is still a little naive and goofy (his masterpiece of a novel is a 2000-page space fantasy called Neptune’s Oblivion), but never reduced to the tired “dumb dad” trope. The most pleasant surprise is the quality of the performances delivered by the child actors playing Ralphie and Sandy’s kids, Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne). Layne almost steals the show out from under everyone a few times. Drosche looks a little too old to be buying into the whole “Santa” and “magic” bits, but maybe I’m just cynical. These are good kids, just the type you’d want Ralphie to raise.

Flick and Schwartz are now early-1970s blue-collar working stiffs, and nail the look perfectly. Flick is a portly, mustached bar owner (“Flick’s Tavern” from the original book) with some great ’70s sideburns, and Schwartz is a perpetually down-on-his-luck schlub, with an outdated pompadour and an ever-present bowling shirt. I don’t want to spoil some of the twists and turns the other characters have taken — Randy isn’t in the film as much as I’d like, but has definitely come a long way from the little kid who refused to eat and hid under the sink, and notorious bully Scut Farkus still stalks the town. (The resolution of his sub-plot is particularly satisfying.) The Bumpuses, with the exception of one little kid, are once again blessedly invisible.

Julie Hagerty has the thankless task of being the one replacement cast member, and she has some heavy lifting to do as the film’s co-lead. In my rush to heap praise on Darren McGavin, I sometimes short-change the work of Melinda Dillon, who played Mrs. Parker with just the right mix of maternal tenderness, practicality, and mild ditziness possibly caused by flat-out exhaustion. (I didn’t spot what would become my favorite Mrs. Parker moment until I’d seen the film a few times — when the Old Man is piecing together the fragments of his ruined leg lamp, she is visible in the background covering the fact she’s dying of laughter.) Hagerty, with her tremulous, whispery voice, never had all that much range as an actor, but I can visualize Dillon’s version of the character aging into this one.

Dillon and Hagerty as two Mrs. Parkers, three decades apart

There are a lot of fan-service callbacks to the original film (including key parts of the score), but A Christmas Story Christmas does not over-rely on them. No full Shepherd stories are used in the plot, but some bits and pieces are incorporated, and the tone is successfully attained and updated. Billingsley handles the narration, and while no one can truly replace Shepherd, the change isn’t jarring — Billingsley’s phrasing and vocal tone are quite similar to Shepherd’s. The narration was always supposed to be the adult Ralphie speaking, and this feels like a passing of the torch to the adult Billingsley. 

Shepherd and Billingsley have finally merged

Ralphie still has elaborate daydreams, which is the only element of the original that I really didn’t care for. Even though they captured the dramatic mind of a 9-year-old perfectly (by turns self-aggrandizing and self-pitying), they slowed things down and indulged Clark’s penchant for the over-baked. The daydream sequences serve even less purpose here. Sometimes director Kaytis deliberately replicates Clark’s worst instincts, but he also shares Clark’s jovial warmth and eye for period detail. The winding-up of the story threads (Ralphie’s writing, the theft of the presents) is genuinely heartwarming.

The magical step of making this a reunion of (most of) the originals bought the project a lot of goodwill, but everyone still took a wait-and-see attitude. The wait ended on November 17, 2022 with the debut of A Christmas Story Christmas. Frankly, it would have relieved a lot of people by simply not sucking. But it pulled off something better. I’m pleased to report the film is good. Not amazing or revelatory. But at least worthy of throwing into the holiday viewing rotation.

APPENDIX: Story Year and Character Ages

Clark and Shepherd deliberately left the year in which A Christmas Story took place unstated, but it’s not hard to pin down to either 1939 or 1940. There is no mention of World War II, and the effects of the Great Depression seem to be waning. The Wizard of Oz characters appearing in the Higbee’s department store are clearly promoting that film, which was released in August of 1939. Memorabilia experts have stated that the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring that Ralphie wants so badly dates from 1940, and in the 1973-set A Christmas Story Christmas, Scut Farkus says his and Ralphie’s epic fight was “33 years” in the past. So it pretty much has to be Christmas 1940 as the setting for the original. Would The Wizard of Oz still be heavily promoted over a year after its release? In those days, sure. It was a pre-TV and home video era, and big event movies had a much slower roll-out across the country. They would linger in theaters for months, or be repeatedly re-released. Oz playing in a Midwestern theater for the 1940 holiday season, either as a first run or a re-release, is quite plausible.

Ralphie is specifically stated to be nine years old in A Christmas Story, making his birth year 1931. Brother Randy is six (b.1934). 

My Summer Story would be the summer of 1941, the last summer before America went to war. If Ralphie was 14 in Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, that would make it 1945, the first summer after the war. A Christmas Story 2 was 1946. The PBS adaptations are hard to date — the production design was a hodgepodge. If we’re trying to match Ralphie’s age to the later releases, those old teleplays should be about 1947-48. (They looked more like the ’50s to me.)

Ralphie probably would have been Class of ‘49 in high school, and it’s indicated in A Christmas Story Christmas that he is a Korean War veteran (1950-53).

A Christmas Story Christmas is set in 1973, so Ralphie is 42 at that point.

Darren McGavin was almost 60 years old when he played the Old Man, probably a bit too old to realistically be the father of a nine-year-old and six-year-old (although stranger things have happened). But if we knock a decade off his age and make the Old Man 50 years old at the time of A Christmas Story, then his age at his death in the sequel would perfectly line up with McGavin’s age at the time of his own passing — 83. People aged faster in those days. A 1940 50-year-old could realistically be played by a 1983 60-year-old. So let’s call the Old Man 50 years old in A Christmas Story (RIP the Old Man — 1890-1973).

Melinda Dillon as Mrs. Parker is quite clearly several years younger than the Old Man in A Christmas Story. Dillon was 43 during A Christmas Storys production — a 17-year age gap between her and McGavin, but if we knock that presumed ten years off of McGavin’s age, then it’s only seven — a more acceptable difference. That puts Mrs. Parker as having her first child at 34, which would be unusually late for the 1930s, but certainly not unheard of. So I’m calling the Old Man and Mrs. Parker 50 and 43 at the time of A Christmas Story. (Mrs. Parker — b.1897, 76 at the time of the sequel, which appears accurate based on Hagerty’s performance and make-up). I’d be interested in a prequel story about how these two met. Shepherd himself offers some insight here. “I saw the Old Man in A Christmas Story as a guy who grew up hustling pool games at the age of twelve and was supporting himself by the age of fourteen,” he said at the time of the film’s release. “And Darren McGavin’s sardonic attitude was exactly the characterization I had in mind. Ralphie’s mother is the kind of woman I figure grew up in a family of four or five sisters and married young. She digs the Old Man, but also knows he’s as dangerous as a snake.” So…married young, but put off starting a family for a while for more time with just each other. That works. 

*About the Jack Nicholson thing. “Almost cast” is an exaggeration. He liked the script, and briefly expressed interest, but his level of salary was never in the budget. Never would have happened.

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