Thursday, December 25, 2014

Humor, Healing, & Why We Love "A Christmas Story!"

Humor, Healing, & Why We Love A Christmas Story!

[Authors Note: Okay, it's been a WHILE since we posted - mostly because "blogspot" had us locked out of our own blog since we couldn't remember the old e-mail/pass word. Which is WHY we are in process of moving to Word Press (and hope you will follow us there next month, and promise to make regular posts and provide new info on Living and Coping With Chronic Illness). For now, being Christmas Day 2014, we hope you'll find some smiles and healing endorphins in the following article. Healing Hugs & A Healing, Healthier New Year!]

The movie, A Christmas Story, about a young boy growing up sometime in the late 30s to early 1940s, in a Northern Mid-West town in the U.S., first aired in theatres in 1983 to lukewarm reviews. In fact some reviewers such as Vincent Canby, wrote in The New York Times, a somewhat scathing interpretation - as some reviewers seem to relish in doing, which is why many of us; both artists and audiences, tend to view their opinions with a measure of suspicion. The first sentence of Canby’s review stated, “There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in A Christmas Story,' but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them.” 

Of course that was in November 1983 on the day the movie premiered in theatres, and it’s always easy (at least it seems so when it comes to some ‘reviewers’) to beat up on a movie with a new concept, new writer, new director – or in other words, anyone who hasn’t already earned a name and reputation in the movie making business. Mr. Canby’s review ironically resembled the movie’s neighborhood bully, Scut Farkus (played quite realistically by actor, Zack Ward), who was always a thorn in the side of the movie’s main character, Ralphie, also played with convincing precision by Peter Billingsley. In fact, it’s acting by kids such as Ward and Billingsley that has always made my husband and I wonder why there is not an academy award specifically for actors under the age of seventeen. 

But back to Canby; apparently there a millions of people who completely disagree with his opinion of there being any difficulty at all in finding plenty of “unexpectedly funny moments” in this movie. In the 30 plus years since that review was written, tens of millions of people have watched A Christmas Story (typically as an annual Holiday past time – just as previous generations watched, It’s a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart), with much amusement and nostalgia. 

In fact, it is the nostalgia for many viewers that makes this movie so special and delightful to watch. After all, it depicts a childhood that has all but become extinct in the era of the Internet, high-tech video games, and cellphone chat and texting. Back when those of us born in the 20th Century, recall a time when our parents told us to, “Go out and play!” and we knew exactly what to do and, were almost always happy to comply.

Today, if you tell a kid (between the ages of five and fifteen) to “go out and play,” most of them will look at you quizzically and ask (seriously), “Go out and play what?” Other than skateboarding or roller blading (and these are typically done at a specified place other than our neighborhood streets or sidewalks), kids today really don’t have a clue as to what to do if they are asked to “go outside.” They would likely sit on the porch or driveway and play a hand-held computer game or text on their cell phone.

Whereas, those of us who were born pre-tech boom and who grew up virtually any time during the 20th Century all the way to say the late 1980s, knew exactly what to do if we were given the edict and the freedom to “go out and play.” We knew that this meant any number of possibilities. It could mean riding one’s bike around the neighborhood (something most parent’s would not consider safe today), roller skating up and down the street or sidewalk (and I said, roller “skating,” not roller “blading”), kicking a can down the street (yes, I said “can” as in an empty soda can). And, if someone was lucky enough to have a ball; a basketball, baseball, soccer ball…any kind of ball, well, that was a whole other set of ‘fun possibilities!’ 

Even if there were no bikes, skates, balls or empty cans; if you had enough kids, there were always those numerous ‘kid games’ such as; “Mother May I?,” “Red Rover,” “Simon Says,” “Hide & Seek,” and even the simple but always fun “tag.” Even my daughter, who grew up ‘on the cusp’ of the new tech era, but as a young kid in the 1980s still enjoyed the meaning of playing outside with other kids, didn’t know some of these simple but incredibly fun games that required action; exercise and some mind strategy (a.k.a. “using one’s brain to create fun moments). Fortunately, we encouraged her to be creative and that showed in her starting an environmentally aware group before Greenpeace was a household name, along with being a talented dancer from age 4 ½, but I’m still not sure if she knows what “Red Rover” is about…?

My husband and I have on several occasions thought of the many different things we would do as kids to ‘create fun’ playing outdoors. For instance, if a new house was being built (or renovated) in the neighborhood, finding empty appliance boxes meant creating an entire town; houses, stores, etc., could be gleaned from the imagination of a group of kids that would mean fun for sometimes an entire day or even several days (or, until the boxes were worn down beyond their original structure). If there was a park, or a small piece of woods, or an open field nearby, then this was a plethora of avenues for ‘kid fun,’ from chasing butterflies, to trying to capture frogs and tadpoles in small, shallow creeks, or even just exploring through the tall grass or trees, to spot a new nest of bird eggs, or a startled rabbit hopping quickly out of sight. Today, this would be unheard of in most medium to large cities as parents would not allow their kids to venture into such places without a supervising adult for safety reasons. 

But, Ralphie, his little brother, Randy, and their friends, didn’t have to worry with these restrictions nor did their parents have such concerns, and playing outside – whether constructive such as all of those games that required both physical action and some mental exercise, or not-so-constructive such as shooting off a BB gun or slingshot, meant the freedom to be a kid and get lost for hours at a time in that world. And this is one of the reasons that A Christmas Story tugs at our hearts and makes us laugh and grin from scene to scene, because it reminds us of a time (that realistically is or has all but become extinct) when we experienced the fullest scope of being a ‘kid’ and all that entailed. From euphoric moments of exhilarating fun to those “oops moments” when someone inevitably got hurt in the process of all of that freedom of movement, or worse, when some kid found it necessary to bully on another kid or another group of kids. And then, the ‘fun’ was definitely over – at least for that day.

The great thing about A Christmas Story, is that it captures all of these aspects of a childhood that many generations experienced before most kids ended up indoors playing games on computers or video players, or doing pretty much anything related to technology. And while this is the way of life today and will likely become even more so as we venture further into the 21st Century, kids from this newer era may never know the joys and sorrows; the ups and downs, and the sheer thrill of having played one’s self out only to be directed toward the bath and then, (secretly) blissfully happy to fall into bed and into that deeply satisfying sleep that only a day of physical and mentally exerting ‘kid fun’ could bring.

A Christmas Story also reminds us of a world where it was still “okay” to say “Merry CHRISTmas,” and to also "believe in Santa Claus." When it was common to save cereal box labels so we could turn them in for things like “Sea Monkeys” and “Secret Decoders,” only to find that the Sea Monkeys were just tiny brine shrimp, and the decoders were usually just a series of questions or “challenges” that ultimately ended up with some corny advertisement for the cereal product.  

Most of all, A Christmas Story has captured a brief moment in time that we can now mostly refer to as “history,” where a kid could simply ‘be’ a kid. When our parents would either spank us (usually in front of the other neighborhood kids – which was the most painful aspect of the punishment), or at the very least, wash our mouths with soap (really) for cussing out loud, fighting with another kid, or either accidentally or accidentally-with-intention; damaging property. You know, like accidentally throwing a ball out of range and busting a window out, or, throwing eggs at someone’s house or bike, or toilet papering the trees in their yard (usually because they’ve done something mean to one of the other neighbor kids).   

Oh, and if we made the dire mistake of running down the street to avoid “the punishment,” other neighborhood Moms would inevitably (like a complex interactive talking GPS system) point us out and call out to our pursuing parent our location, while simultaneously warning us that we “had better turn around and go back home” (to face the firing squad)! 

Today, if a parent pursued their child down the street with a spoon or a switch with intent on physical punishment, neighbors (who too often don’t even know one another) would call CPS on the parent to “spare the poor child.” Amazingly, most of us survived those punishments without scars and mostly just a bit of wounded pride – which possibly seemed worse. We also ultimately learned healthy boundaries and a respect for adult authority and wisdom that has made us better adults. Granted, there were exceptions for some unfortunate kids where the punishment became abusive, and that is altogether different than what I’m referring to and most of you born before the late 1980s know what I’m talking about firsthand (so-to-speak). This is why we find the scene with Ralphie having to put a bar of soap in his mouth so amusing.

This movie also reminds us of a time when parents had a special collection of “parental warnings” that they often resorted to when called for, such as the ongoing warning to Ralphie, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” for having and shooting a BB gun. Other such warnings from this time capsule of childhood included sayings such as; “If everyone else jumped in the lake, does that mean you would too?” (This, usually in response to our nagging and ongoing subtle harassment of our parent or parents, to allow us to do or have something that “other kids” did or had). Then there was, “Stop that crying before I really give you something to cry about!” (Which meant, “Knock it off with the crying otherwise, you’re going to drive me to do something that will really justify your crying!”). “Don’t make me come out there!” was the warning we’d hear when failing to come in after our parent(s) had already told us to get in the house at least two times before, and yet, we were still testing THEIR boundaries by remaining outside. Likewise, “Don’t make me come up there (if your bedroom was on the second floor) or, “Don’t make me come in there,” if on the first floor – meaning, “I’ve already given you so many warnings to get in the bath, or get in the bed, or get quiet if you’re in the bed, or turn your light out,” that if you make me say it one more time, I’ll come in there and do so in person and that will most definitely NOT be all I do!” 

Then there’s my all-time favorite of warnings that includes prize winning statements such as, “Don’t come running to me if you break your neck,” or (similarly) “Don’t come running to me if you cut your toes off!” (Typically associated with attempting to mow the lawn, or, ride your bike, without shoes). So when we hear Ralphie warned on a number of occasions that he’ll ‘shoot his eyes out,” from shooting a BB gun, we can hardly avoid a nostalgic giggle.

And again, it’s this very time specific nostalgia of an era of childhood that reminds those of us born before the mid-1980s that brings the joys of being a kid in that time frame fresh to us - as if they just happened yesterday. It’s what makes us laugh and agonize with Ralphie, his little brother, and their small group of friends and class mates, over and over again. We know in our hearts that this was a truly special time to be a kid and many of those experiences no longer are part of the generations of kids born mid 1980s and after. So when I read that The Library of Congress selected A Christmas Story to be “preserved” in the National Film Registry for being, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” I was not at all surprised.  

I’m not sure what time frame Mr. Canby grew up in but I would guess that it either was before the era that A Christmas Story depicted, or, perhaps he had a difficult childhood and missed out on the very incidents and adventures that made the rest of us laugh so often at the antics of Ralphie & Company. I know one thing for certain, the many amusing scenes in this movie required very little “stamina” and were surely far easier than “pearl diving!” 

Merry CHRISTMAS (and watch out for falling icicles)!

 "Playing Outside" with my brother and little sister around Christmas time =)

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