Christmas is all about traditions. As Dec. 25 nears, many of us will decorate trees, rattle sleigh bells and assemble with families, devouring ham and exchanging sweaters, just as our ancestors did before us.
But for the past quarter of a century, another yuletide tradition has emerged: The annual viewing of “A Christmas Story.”
“I think for this generation— and maybe ours too — it’s kind of replaced ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” said Mike Mesker, a San Luis Obispo resident who appears in the stage version of “A Christmas Story” at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre.
Even with stiff holiday viewing competition from the Disney Channel ( “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas”), Hallmark ( “A Season for Miracles”), and the Cartoon Network ( “Bah, Humduck!”), “A Christmas Story” has become the staple of holiday TV, propelled in part by the annual 24-hour marathons (this year on TBS, beginning Christmas Eve).
But given the hundreds of other Christmas movies out there, why does a movie that takes place in 1939 still stand out in 2011?
We asked the stars of the Little Theatre production for their opinions.
“It’s timeless,” said Brooke Foster-Nur, a behavior specialist in San Luis Obispo, who’s portraying the mother, Mrs. Parker.
The movie, based on short stories by the late radio personality Jean Shepherd, follows the Parker family—Ralphie, his little brother Randy and their parents. Starring Peter Billingsly as 8-year-old Ralphie, the movie’s plot is simple: All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a BB gun. But getting a BB gun is not as easy as it seems—especially when adults see BB guns as a health risk. ( “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”)
Told by an adult narrator looking back on his boyhood — a formula also used successfully in “The Wonder Years” and “Stand By Me” — it provides a nice escape to a seemingly simpler time, when the worst thing you could do is let your parent catch you using the F-word, and the most outrageous thing you could do is triple-dog dare your buddy to do something really stupid.
At the same time, the child characters are relatable to kids today, even if they wear dorky glasses and wool coats.
“When I first saw the movie, I really didn’t know it took place in the ’30s,” said Chris Jensen, an 11-year-old who plays Ralphie in the Little Theatre play.
The side stories in “A Christmas Story” are also timeless, making it appealing for stage versions across the country. There’s the bully who finally pushes too far, the father who dreams of a more successful future that will never exist and the aunt’s clueless Christmas gift.
There’s no magic dust, talking animals or holiday miracles here. Just sweet nostalgia, as Mesker says.
“One of the neat things for me about it is that it’s Christmas, but it’s not about religion or about goodness,” Mesker said. “Everybody kind of identifies with what a real Christmas in America is about, which is kids and presents and the meal and family and all the traditions.”
While it’s a story about boyhood, told from the perspective of a man (the Little Theatre play will have an adult narrator, like the movie), Foster-Nur said she can relate as a woman because she remembers seeing boys like Ralphie and Randy.
“One of my favorite parts of the show is the fact that Randy’s always screaming, ‘I’ve got to go wee-wee!’ ” Foster-Nur said.
Being a period piece, the film is dated in some ways, though. As a working professional, Foster- Nur doesn’t especially relate to the stay-at-home mother she portrays. And, like many parents from the era, Ralphie’s folks aren’t overtly loving.
“They weren’t really affectionate parents,” Mesker said. “That’s kind of a different time.”
Yet, the behavior specialist part of Foster-Nur can see that the family’s members do love each other — just in a different way.
“Looking at their communication, there’s a lot about the story that goes unsaid. It’s more nonverbal communication — a lot of body language and looks,” she said. “The family very much loves each other, but it’s not really said. And it’s not shown in conventional ways.”
Foster-Nur can relate to loving parents that didn’t hug a lot. And the story reminds Mesker of tales his grandfather told of growing up. Even Jensen can relate to the daydreaming Ralphie he portrays.
But while he can identify with Ralphie’s quest for the ideal toy, a BB gun is not on his Christmas list this year.
“I want one of those Lego Pirates of the Caribbean sets,” he said. “Some people say I’m a little too old for that, but I’m really into it. I like to build and that kind of stuff.”