Editor’s note: ‘A Christmas Story’ airs on TBS and TBN repeatedly over Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Find show times and stations here.
As Christmas quickly approaches, in a season filled with Christmas specials and shows, one full-length movie that makes the cut for most people is the 1983 classic, “A Christmas Story.”
While certainly touching and funny, underneath the surface of this film is a story about the power of the father-son bond.
Dads Can Be Dutiful, Distant, Dominant
Dads are portrayed in a myriad of ways in Christmas films. In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” father, husband, and frustrated businessman George Bailey is dramatic and depressed, but humbled beyond comparison by the conclusion of the film. Remember Bob Cratchit, the father of Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol?” He’s kind, devoted, humble—and Ebenezer Scrooge treats him like garbage.
In “A Christmas Story,” the “old man”—played brilliantly by the late Darren McGavin—at first glance seems like nothing more than a vehicle for some laughs. He is portrayed as aloof and somewhat out of touch. He’s there to be the dad—the breadwinner, the disciplinarian, the in-house repair man and mechanic.
His relationship with Ralph, his son and the movie’s main character, doesn’t appear to be fully explored, but if you look closely, the power of the father-son bond is evident. The subtleties are hard to catch due largely to the “adult” Ralph narrator poking fun at his dad, albeit in a good-natured manner.
That said, when you look at Ralph’s face and his mannerisms throughout the movie, it’s clear that he is in awe of his father and subconsciously depends on his father, as most children do and should.
That One Christmas Gift We Wanted So Much
Within the first few opening sequences, viewers realize what Ralph wants more than anything else for Christmas: Displayed in a department store window is a Red Ryder BB gun.
Plenty of us can remember that one Christmas, that one year when our wishes and fondest fantasies revolved around one priceless treasure—the ultimate gift that became somewhat of an obsession.
In what becomes a futile exercise, Ralph cycles through a number of ways to get confirmation he is going get that BB gun, only to be rebuffed time and time again with prediction, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
When Ralph’s mini schemes fail, he realizes he has one last chance: Santa Claus. At nine years old, Ralph is walking that fine line between believing completely and knowing full well that Santa Claus is not real. Still, he gathers up his courage. When he finally gets his chance to make his case, Santa Claus responds: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” The reality of Santa Claus is forever destroyed for Ralph at that exact moment.
A Father-Son Relationship Is Complex but Vital
One of the things I love about this movie is how real it makes the dad. We fathers aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. We know our kids see them, even if we don’t want them to. Whether you’re trying to teach your kids patience and thankfulness like Bob Cratchit, or just hoping your kids don’t catch on to all your vices, like Ralph’s dad, either way, the struggle is real.
I’ve had to deal with this even though my son is now a teenager. Recently, I informed him of the ills of going over a smartphone data plan. Our plan was right on the edge of going over, and when I informed Dear Son he would pay for any overage charges, the data usage came to a screeching halt.
When Ralph’s told to help his dad change a tire, he’s thrilled. In the middle of that task, he messes up and drops the F-bomb. When asked where learned that word, we expect Ralph to say, “It was you! I learned it from watching you!” Instead, Ralph protects his father and blames his friend, Schwartz, who winds up getting pummeled for something he didn’t do.
Unlike his mother, Ralph appreciates the old man’s “major award” leg lamp. He also has a healthy fear of the old man, which is a tricky but vital aspect of the father-son bond.
The Old Man Is Paying Attention
Ralph becomes somewhat resigned to the fact he will not get the gift he covets. On Christmas morning, when all the gifts are opened and he fails to find his prized BB gun, we are as disappointed as he.
Ralph’s old man asks Ralph if he got everything he wanted. Ralph replies, “Almost,” and the old man exclaims, “Well, there’s always next Christmas.” What happens next is unexpected in light of how the old man is portrayed the movie’s first 80 minutes. All we thought we knew about the “old man” is turned on its head in the following exchange.
Dad: “Hey. That’s funny. What’s that over there behind the desk?”
Dad: “Behind the desk against the wall over there. Go check it out.”
Ralph turns to see the gift he’s wanted for months: the Red Ryder BB gun. As Ralph opens it, overjoyed at this turn of events, we see dad beaming, thrilled he was part of this moment. He is delighted, and we are delighted for him.
We realize as viewers that, all along, Ralph’s dad knew what his son wanted for Christmas. He knew it was tough being a nine-year-old boy. He knew Ralph had a difficult year with his friends. He knew Ralph was disappointed in Santa Claus. Without discussing it with Mom, he went out and purchased the BB gun.
When we see young Ralph in bed that night, adult Ralph recalls the moment and narrates fondly: “Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue-steel beauty. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received.” The end is more than just the gift. Ralph went to sleep that night also knowing the old man cared and was paying attention.
Whether you tend to be a more dramatic dad like Bailey, a devoted one like Cratchit, or a distant one like Ralph’s, personality plays a role, but it’s not the most important aspect of your relationship with your son. Boys, whether 9 or 18, need to know dad is watching, dad is listening, and dad is more dependable than friends, money, or Santa Claus. That will solidify your bond more than any material item—and a close father-son relationship is the best gift of all.