Of all of the hundreds of Christmas entertainments, only like five of them are so good you can watch them every year with your family and recite the dialogue as they play: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation, and A Christmas Story. Based on a book by humorist Jean Shepherd, it’s an episodic tale about a little boy named Ralphie growing up in Indiana in the 1940s and his struggle to stay on the nice list as Christmas approaches. The reason: He wants a Red Ryder air rifle, but is told it’s a non-starter because he’ll shoot his eye out. It’s a gentle, soothing, nostalgic security blanket that I’ve seen at least a million times. And yet I’m still left with a lot of loose threads and open-ended story points. I need answers.
1. Is Ralphie a psychopath?
In as much as all children are psychopaths. Something about how they don’t have a fully developed frontal cortex or something means they are incredibly calculating and self-serving and will get what they want at all costs. Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) is singularly-minded in his pursuit of a Red Ryder air rifle — a weapon at best, and a toy that casualizes violence at worst. And he wants it so bad he speaks and thinks of little else, having fantasies about how he and he alone will save the family from imagined “bad guys,” like robbers and bandits.
2. Ralphie still believes in Santa?
Ralphie can’t seem to get his parents on board, so he asks Santa to bring him that air rifle which he so desperately needs to maintain his hero complex. He thinks the creepy department store Santa is actually the real one, which is odd. First of all, Ralphie is nine years old, so already a bit long in the tooth to believe in Santa. Secondly, even kids on the older side of believing in Santa aren’t so naive as to think the Santa at their local department store or mall is the real one. They see Santas all over the place, and parents give them the old “those aren’t the real Santa, but his special helpers” line, which keeps the lie alive for a little while longer. Ralphie seems to be willingly suspending his disbelief to get that gun. Or he is so young and immature that he does believe in Santa? If you’re so young you think Santa is real, you’re too young for a gun.
3. That kid’s name is Scut?
The nasty little bully in the fur hat that terrorizes Ralphie and his friends (until Ralphie beats him to a bloody pulp; see above) isn’t named “Scott.” After seeing this movie a hundred times, you and I both thought his name was Scott, as Scott is a normal name, and even one befitting bullies. (Sorry, dudes named Scott, but bullies always have one-syllable, consonant-heavy names.) Scut is not a name or a word, so it makes sense that I never noticed that this is the bully’s actual name. That is a horrible name with which to burden a child, especially when coupled with “Farkus.” No wonder he’s a such a monster.
4. What did Ralphie’s dad do to win the major award?
The sexy lady leg lamp is the thing people who haven’t even seen A Christmas Story remember about A Christmas Story. You can buy your own leg lamp now, or a leg lamp Christmas tree ornament, if you prefer. Yes, it’s funny that the Old Man is excited because it is his “major award” and also it’s just a little bit of titillation in a dreary, otherwise titillation-free existence. I wonder what exactly he did to get this specific award. It seems like a prank from his guy friends, or he was the canasta champion down at the Elks Lodge, or something else suitably macho and 1940s. Bowling? Yeah, it’s probably from bowling.
5. How did Ralphie’s parents ever even get together?
They’ve been married for a while and have settled into a stereotypical mid-20th century routine: Dad works and reads the paper, Mom literally spends all day in front of a hot stove. (The dinner every single night for Ralphie and his family: meat loaf and cabbage. Really!) These two don’t seem to like each other all that much. Mom is spirited and well-read (she knows the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse is named Victor!) and actually likes her children, even the wholly unlikeable and annoying Randy. The Old Man just wants to be left alone to do this thing, swear at the furnace, or just generally be in a bad mood. Why does Mom like Dad? She’s also a good decade or so younger than he is, which is fine, but where did they meet in what, the early ’30s? Soup kitchen? Dance maraton?
6. What does soap taste like?
When Ralphie says the F-word (“fudge,” but not fudge) his mother washes his mouth out with soap, an old-fashioned way of teaching kids to not do the intangible action of using “dirty” words via the physical action of cleanliness. So, does, like, this work? Does soap taste that bad that it led somebody to never mutter a swear word again? Also, I’m pretty sure soap is poison, so making your kids gargle it is messed up.
7. Is Silas Marner really that bad?
In the film’s second most-memorable sequence, after the leg lamp, is when Ralphie’s friend Flick takes the double-dog-dare and gets his tongue stuck to a pole. He’s rescued when the teacher notices he’s gone, shortly after she busts out Silas Marner. We read that book in high school and these kids have to read it in, what, the fourth grade? That novel is sweet and important and I love it (I wrote a 30-page paper on it in college) but it is also an incredibly boring book. It’s so boring that Flick would rather get his tongue painfully caught on cold metal. Worth it.
8. What’s up with the dogs?
The Old Man keeps getting hunted down by the “785 dogs” owned by the Bumpuses, the “hillbillies” that live next door. Now, they aren’t really hillbillies because this is the suburbs. The dogs bother nobody else (at first) but the Old Man. Which begs the question: Are they behavior-modifying ghosts, like in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Or are they living, breathing, canine, 1940s versions of the Elf on the Shelf for grown-ups? Proof: The Old Man is in a bad mood for the entirety of the movie, only to soften up on Christmas to be the one who actually gets Ralphie his air rifle. Those Christmas dogs chased him down and spooked him until he got the Christmas spirit. (Then they ruin Christmas dinner anyway.)
9. What’s up with the Chinese restaurant?
When Christmas dinner gets destroyed by the Bumpus hounds, Ralphie and his family hit the only restaurant in town open, a Chinese place. The staff sing “Deck the Halls” but they have thick, stereotypical “Asian” accents and instead of singing “fa la la” they say “fa ra ra.” Oh my but this is problematic. They haven’t cut this out of re-airings yet?