You Won’t Shoot Your Eye Out:
Three Lessons in Overcoming Crucibles from A Christmas Story
December 21, 2023
It’s become as much a part of the holiday season as eggnog and mistletoe, the annual 24-hour TV marathon of A Christmas Story. This is the 27th year the film will run continuously on cable, set to air on TBS and TNT from Sunday, Dec. 24 at 8pm ET to Monday, Dec. 25 at 8pm ET. The movie, originally released in 1983, is so popular that it came in at No. 2 in a poll The Associated Press did a few years ago asking Americans to name their favorite Christmas movie. It was bested only by It’s a Wonderful Life.
That was hardly the class of company A Christmas Story was expected to keep when it was released in 1983. A slight comedy about a 9-year-old boy in the 1940s Midwest whose only wish for Christmas is a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, the film is well-written and well-acted but certainly has no Oscar aspirations. The biggest name in the cast is Darrin McGavin, known for playing character roles in films like The Man With the Golden Arm (1955, menacing Frank Sinatra) and The Natural (1984, menacing Robert Redford); just about everyone else, including Peter Billingsley as the air-rifle-obsessed Ralphie Parker, is an unknown or barely-known. The director, Bob Clark, was best known for his raunchy R-rated comedy Porky’s (1981).
So how did it become more of a holiday favorite, according to the AP poll, than Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, White Christmas and Elf? Part of the answer comes courtesy of American media baron Ted Turner. When he bought MGM, the studio that made the movie, in 1985, he held on to the broadcast rights of its massive film library even after he sold the company a year later. He started airing A Christmas Story on the various cable channels he owned in 1991 and increased its showings as ratings grew. As more people saw it, it became a cult classic and now, indeed, a popular classic.
But why? Around these parts, as Red Ryder might say, we’d like to think it’s because the movie offers three key lessons about how to move past crucibles and live a life of significance.
Lesson 1: Don’t let others’ opinions deter you from your vision.
Ralphie’s vision is to cradle that glorious Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model, which he refers to as The Holy Grail of Christmas Gifts. He daydreams about protecting his family from the nefarious Black Bart and his gang, imagining how he heroically defends their Chestnut Street home in the fictional suburban burg of Hohman, Ind., when it comes under siege. So off-the-charts passionate is Ralphie about the toy gun he spends weeks planting verbal and physical hints for his mom and dad (whom, in the flashback voice-overs, he refers to only as The Old Man). He seizes the opportunity to write a theme in English class at Warren G. Harding Elementary School, waxing poetic about the toy of his dreams.
And then the crucible hits. Hard and often. First his mom, then his teacher, Miss Shields, then even the Santa at Higby’s Department Store, try to dissuade him from his vision. “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” they all say – bemoaned by Ralphie as the “classic BB-gun block.” On Christmas Day, he not only has to put on the pink bunny outfit his Aunt Clara made for him, but he also goes through every wrapped present with his younger brother, Randy, and nothing with a barrel and a trigger is revealed. He has just about settled into accepting that he is surrounded by happier kids who are getting what they want for Christmas when The Old Man tells him there’s one more present he’s hidden. Ralphie excitedly retrieves it, tears away its paper and his vision for the air rifle becomes reality.
His actions are a lesson we’d all do well to heed in pursuit of our own visions. We will encounter naysayers. Things may look bleak from time to time – as bleak as Santa bopping him with his foot down the post-sit-on-his-lap slide, telling the boy he’ll be getting a football. But Ralphie, despite wavering a time or two in his despondency, musters the resilience to not give up hope. We maintain the opportunity to be rewarded similarly when we stick to our figurative guns when our vision comes under figurative fire.
Lesson 2: Don’t put your identity in things.
The Old Man is a bit of a puzzle savant. Or at least he fancies himself one. He’s always entering newspaper contests tied to some game, shots he takes, he tells his wife, because he has “mind power.” Then it happens. He is alerted that he has won “a major award” – and as he imagines what it could be (even speculating it might be a bowling alley, undeterred by his wife pointing out that would be a little hard for the newspaper to mail). He winds up not just excited … but a little too excited. When the crate arrives, he speculates before opening it that it must be Italian because it is labeled FRAGILE – “fra-GEE-lay,” he pronounces it. When he does open it, he is instantly smitten – by a fishnet-stocking-clad plastic leg lamp.
He moons over it, calling it “indescribably beautiful” and arranging to put it smack in the middle of the Parker family home’s big bay window. He goes outside to admire its seedy glow from the street, where he prances like a peacock as his neighbors gaze at it and he repeats the phrase “a major award” a few more times when asked to explain what it is. It’s clear The Old Man has wrapped up a big chunk of his identity in that racy chunk of plastic – before it falls and breaks while his wife is dusting. He is beside himself with grief, angry at the mother of his children to the point of accusing her of never liking it (insinuating she might have destroyed it on purpose) and being jealous – whether of the light or the fact that he won it with his mind power is never made clear.
It is only when the gravitational pull of Christmas Day and its family festivities sets in that The Old Man allows himself to reestablish his identity once again in the life he has created with his wife and family, not in the things he has accumulated for himself. We’d all be wise to remember a life of significance is never found in a gaudy leg lamp – or in anything not rooted in serving others’ best interests before our own selfish ones.
Lesson 3: Find the humor in setbacks.
The family Christmas dinner is ruined by the dogs of the Bumpusses, their “hillbilly neighbors,” as older Ralphie calls them in voiceover. The hounds — 785 of them that smell really bad, according to Ralphie – storm through the family’s back door, knocking over furniture, including the kitchen table, and devour the Christmas turkey and all its fixings and desserts. The Old Man is initially apoplectic, his wife reduced to tears. But they quickly hatch a plan to bundle up and head out to dinner. All that’s open on Christmas Day in Hohman is the Chop Suey Palace, a hole-in-the-wall Asian food restaurant. The waiters sing the Parkers Christmas carols – badly – and serve them a duck with its head still attached. Do The Old Man, his wife, Ralphie and Randy hang their heads and mourn the loss of a festive evening during The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Hardly. They laugh when the owner hacks the goose’s neck in two to remove the head and let the Yuletide wash over them, not wash out to sea. The movie’s final scene shows The Old Man and his wife sitting in their darkened house, the kids gone to bed, snuggling together as they watch the snow fall on Christmas night. As Silent Night plays over the soundtrack, it’s clear the Parkers are enjoying a significant night in their life of significance.
You’ll have 12 opportunities to see A Christmas Story during its 24-hour TV marathon this year. Whether you watch it once all the way through or keep dropping in throughout the day and night to catch your favorite bits, you won’t shoot your eye out. You’ll fill both of your eyes with insights into how to weather and overcome life’s crucibles during Christmas – and the other 364 days of the year.
· What tactics do you use to prevent naysayers from dissuading you from pursuing your vision?
· Have you ever been tempted to place your identity, even just a part of it, in the things you’ve accomplished? Why is that dangerous? How do you avoid it?
· Think of at least one time this year that you’ve suffered a setback but chose to see the humor in it to help you get past it. Why is that such an important perspective to have?
You are more than your failures and setbacks.
We share inspirational stories and transformational tools from leaders who have moved beyond life’s most difficult moments to create lives of significance.
Listen to our Beyond the Crucible Podcast here.