*****A SLEIGH FULL OF SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
“A Christmas Story” (1983)
Confession time; I never saw the late Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story” (1983) in theatrical release. It opened sans fanfare back in 1983, and stayed off my personal radar until the mid-1990s. On Christmas Day of 1993, I’d worked myself into a nasty flu, and so I spent that particular holiday alone in my apartment, curled up in front of my TV. With little else to do but cough, drink Theraflu, and feel lousy, I surfed through my cable channels and managed to catch “A Christmas Story” from beginning to end.
The story centers on little Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley, in a thoroughly authentic performance), who recalls his family’s obsession with having a ‘perfect’ Christmas in 1946 Indiana. This charming holiday movie reached out from my tiny TV screen and grabbed me by my flannel nightshirt. I was riveted. “A Christmas Story” was one of the few family movies I’d seen that really nailed a child’s perspective. Ralph and his kid brother Randy (Ian Petrella) didn’t speak like snarky adult screenwriters; they spoke like real kids. Ralphie’s father, “the old man” (Darren McGavin) and mother (Melinda Dillon) were also spot-on; delivering perfectly-timed comedic performances with just enough heart to be lovable, as well.
Narrated by the book’s author (and movie’s co-scripter) Jean Shepherd, the film is told entirely from the perspective of young Ralphie—including his hilariously melodramatic fantasies—as he watches his grumpy (but inwardly sweet) father struggle mightily to deliver the perfect Christmas experience. I empathized as Ralphie dealt with neighborhood bullies, fake decoder rings, double/triple-dog dares, and his ever-hopeful Christmas wish for a Red Ryder BB-gun (when I was eight, I desperately wanted a Mego “Planet of the Apes” treehouse playset; see: photo below).
Last year, as the COVID pandemic experienced another deadly resurgence, my wife (a fellow fan of the movie) and I were isolating at home on Christmas Day, and we decided to watch “A Christmas Story” on our HD projector. It really did the trick. This past holiday weekend, after putting up our Christmas lights, we decided to watch the newly arrived sequel, “A Christmas Story Christmas”, which sees middle-aged, struggling writer Ralph and his own family returning to his childhood home for Christmas in 1973…
“A Christmas Story Christmas” (2022)
The story opens around Christmas of 1973, with a forty-something Ralph Parker (Peter Billingsley) at home in Chicago with his wife Sandy (Erin Hayes), son Mark (River Drosche), and daughter Julie (Julianna Layne). Ralph is anticipating a call from his agent or one of many publishers regarding his sci-fi opus manuscript. While the publishers aren’t biting, Ralph keeps the faith. One phone call Ralph didn’t anticipate comes from his mother (Julie Hagerty), who delivers the sad news that his “old man” (Darren McGavin) has passed away. Quickly changing their holiday plans, Ralph takes his wife and kids in their ramshackle family car for the perilous drive to his boyhood home in snowy Indiana.
Note: The adult Ralph still holds out hope that his self-treasured literary works will be recognized for their greatness (a nod to his ‘Christmas Wish List’ essay from the first movie). The death of Ralph’s father onscreen is an acknowledgment of the late, great Darren McGavin, who passed away in 2006 after a long career in movies and TV (“The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”). The character’s (and actor’s) presence is felt throughout the sequel with audio clips, photos and flashbacks.
Arriving home, Ralph and his family are welcomed by his now heavily-drinking mother, who has also developed a morbid fear of Christmas carolers. Trying to evade a group of carolers who’ve arrived at her doorstep, Mrs. Parker deliberately trips her daughter-in-law Sandy, who was walking towards the door to greet them. With an injured Sandy now on crutches, the kids are then introduced to a younger member of the hillbilly Bumpus clan (David Murphy), who still live next door, along with a new litter of hound dogs. Mark and Julie also become the targets of a new generation of neighborhood bullies, who demolish the kids’ freshly-made Frosty with snowmobiles. Ralph faces his own challenge, as the budding writer is now tasked with the heavy responsibility of writing his late father’s obituary…
Note: Whereas Ralph’s confrontation with the neighborhood bullies was a vital arc of the first movie, his kids’ confrontations with their own bullies is wisely reduced to a subplot for the sequel. This makes sense, since we’ve already seen that story, and it’s narratively economical not to belabor it. Besides, the sequel is being told from adult Ralph’s perspective—not his kids. On that note, actor/writer Peter Billingsley does a remarkable job of recapturing author Jean Shepherd’s narrator energy from the original movie. Billingsley doesn’t do a Jean Shepherd impression per se, but he gets the vibe just right. I was also surprised to learn that the movie’s near-perfect recreations of the original Ohio-for-Indiana locales were faithfully recreated in Bulgaria.
After settling in, Ralph takes his family on the ritualistic trip to Higbee’s department store, where they gaze with anticipation into a window display full of authentic 1970s-era toys. This is but one of many callbacks to the original film. It also recalls a time when visual merchandising was an art form unto itself with big ticket retailers. Such stores are all but vanishing these days, as online retail becomes increasingly dominant. With Sandy’s ankle putting her out of the action, she and Mrs. Parker go to the store’s lounge to get in some holiday drinking, while Ralph fills the Christmas list, and the kids go to meet Higbee’s Santa Claus…
Note: If anyone has issues with this film’s nostalgic preoccupation, they might want to remember that this movie is literally all about nostalgia. Anyone not onboard with 1983’s “A Christmas Story” will most likely not understand or fully appreciate the resonance these little moments have with hardcore fans of the original, and that’s perfectly okay; no movie is universally beloved. One objective criticism I had with this film was with its occasionally clunky, TV sitcom-sounding dialogue—usually between secondary characters. It doesn’t happen too often, but you know it when you hear it.
With Ralph buying all the presents (spending nearly every last dollar of the family’s holiday savings), the kids finally get to meet Santa Claus in a less-traumatic encounter than their father had back in 1946. Meanwhile, Sandy and Mrs. Parker get thoroughly sloshed, as they bond over their surprisingly light holiday itineraries. With the shopping finished, the Parkers leave in the dilapidated family car… as its shoddy radiator overheats once again. Forced to pull over until it cools down, the family gets into an impromptu snowball fight in the nearby woods. Dividing into teams of mother-son and father-daughter, the action gets rather intense, until Ralph accidentally beans young Julie right in the eye with a ball of compressed ice delivered at point blank range. With the car sufficiently cooled to drive, they drive Julie to the emergency room, not realizing that the car’s trunk—with all of their wrapped Christmas presents tucked inside—has come unlatched. The Parkers leave the hospital with their eyepatch-fitted daughter, only to realize their Christmas presents have been stolen.
Note: Julie’s eye injury is not too unlike her dad’s eye injury from the first film, when he (as predicted) nearly ‘shot his eye out’ with his brand new Red Ryder BB gun on Christmas morning of 1946.
Feeling miserable, Ralph goes to the local bar to drown his sorrows, and reconnect with his old school chums Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb). His barkeep buddy Flick assures him that his drinks—including young Mark’s Shirley Temple—are on the house. Less lucky is Schwartz, whose bar tab is in danger of being cut off. Hoping to square things with Flick, Schwartz unwisely accepts a dare to slide down a massive, dangerously icy metal slide at an abandoned industrial site. The dare, if taken, will clear Schwartz’s bar tab. Schwartz accepts, plunging down the cold metal ramp, and landing on unforgivingly hard snow. Somehow surviving, despite his foolishness, Schwartz inspires the assembled kids and other witnesses to perform their own death-defying slides and stunts. Young Mark, of course, breaks his arm, making him the third Yuletide casualty in the Parker family.
Note: The ‘double-dog dare’ ramp-slide sequence is a callback to Schwartz’s equally idiotic stunt from the first film, where he agreed to press his wet tongue against a frozen pole to see if it would stick, which it famously did. Aside from cowriter Billingsley, other actors from 1983’s “A Christmas Story” were also called back into service for this sequel, including Scott Schwartz, and J.D. Robb. Sadly, actress Melinda Dillon, who so memorably played Mrs. Parker in the original film, has since retired, and didn’t return. Actress Julie Hagerty (“Airplane!”) steps into the role, though she lacks some of the warmth which Dillon gave the character.
After a sudden burst of inspiration, Ralph dusts off the old typewriter in the attic, and completes a lengthy, heartfelt obituary for his dad. That same day, a cast-wearing Mark and a quickly-recovered Julie make short work of their snowmobile-riding bullies with a snowman built over a thick tree stump (ouch!). Later that evening, Ralph, Sandy and Mrs. Parker watch as the kids are pressed into service to decorate the Christmas tree. Micromanaging-dad Ralph insists that a star is the only proper way to top off the tree. Unfortunately, the star falls and shatters, breaking Julie’s heart. This forces the obsessed Ralph to find a last-minute replacement (on Christmas Eve, no less). With all of the stores closed, Ralph notices a “Blatz Beer” star hanging in the window of his friend Flick’s now-closed bar window. Planning to ‘borrow’ the star, Ralph then climbs in from the back alley, takes the Blatz star, and leaves a note for Flick—which he hopes will somehow excuse his theft.
Note: This is a moment where I thought Ralph really crossed the line. He was now ‘Breaking Bad,’ and a single shattered tree topping ornament is hardly a “ruined” Christmas. However, this inexcusably moronic act on Ralph’s part is merely setup for a greater payoff, so in retrospect, I forgive it.
On the way out of Flick’s bar, Ralph accidentally breaks a window. Desperate to leave with his star before attracting too much attention, amateur burglar Ralph is caught redhanded by none other than the local fuzz—and not just any fuzz, but Ralph’s boyhood arch nemesis, Scut Farkas (Zack Ward)—the metal-mouthed bully who made young Ralphie’s life a living hell, until Ralphie finally snapped, and beat the living snot out of him in a tear-filled, blind rage.
Note: A lanky, pale, redheaded menace, ‘Scut Farkas’ (so memorably played by actor Zack Ward) is arguably the Darth Vader of “A Christmas Story.” His return to the sequel is saved for movie’s penultimate act, where the former nemesis of our hero is now revealed to be a cop. This reveal here in the sequel is so good that it actually pays off Ralph’s frustratingly foolish act of breaking into Flick’s bar.
Naturally, policeman Farkus recognizes the former prey who rose to defeat its predator. Ralph tries flattery, and all other psychological tools in his arsenal to defuse this potentially fatal encounter with his former bully, but nothing seems to work. As they drive past the town’s police station, Ralph begins to wonder if his former adversary intends to murder him in some dark alley. Arriving at the Parker family home instead, Farkus lets Ralph go… with the star. Farkus then tells Ralph that the vengeance beating he received at Ralph’s younger hands set him on a better path, and led to the former delinquent’s decision to become a peace officer. “Officer” Farkus wishes the dumbstruck Ralph a Merry Christmas, and drives away…
Note: Actor Zack Ward is just perfect as the adult Scut Farkus, giving his cameo an air of great comedic menace. I’ve seen Zack Ward at several conventions over the years, and I keep meaning to get an autograph (someday…?). Given the growing public distrust with law enforcement (especially in 1973, when cops were often called ‘pigs’), making Scut a cop was the perfect way to play up his ambiguous intent.
On Christmas morning, Ralph goes to get the morning paper when he’s mysteriously greeted by neighbors congratulating him on his “story.” Since he threw his thick sci-fi manuscript into the trash, Ralph is left confused. Sandy then tells her frustrated writer husband that she saw his loving obituary to his dad, and it moved her to send it to the editor of the local paper, who published it as a front page story. The story is, in fact, so well-received that the editor wants Ralph to do a nationally syndicated column. Ralph’s writing dream is fulfilled. Ralph’s kid brother Randy (Ian Patrella) also makes a surprise return from India, after a guilt-laden chat with his older brother in an earlier phone call. The day gets even better as Mrs. Parker finds a load of fully wrapped presents in the basement, after replacing a burnt fuse; they were bought and wrapped by the Old Man himself, right before he passed away. As Mark opens his coveted sleigh, Ralph realizes these gifts replaced some of the presents stolen from the hospital parking lot.
The old man once again saves Christmas…
Note: Yes, kid brother Randy returns, even if we learn next-to-nothing about what he’s been up since we last saw him, other than he’s a success and currently traveling to India, for some unknown reason. Returning actor Ian Patrella isn’t given much to do in his two brief scenes, but it’s nice to check off the “A Christmas Story” bingo card by having him back.
The movie’s mega-happy ending sees various friends and neighbors also stopping by to help the family polish off the various casseroles given to the widow Parker, as well as a huge roast turkey. At the table, Ralph is surrounded by his loving family and friends, with a steady writing career ahead of him, courtesy of his wife’s quick thinking. Ralph has helped to deliver a holiday for his family that would make his old man proud…
Note: Despite the lack of Melinda Dillon, “A Christmas Story Christmas” is about as good a sequel/reunion movie as “A Christmas Story” could possibly have. There was also a 1994 sequel called “A Summer Story,” which starred Charles Grodin, Mary Steenburgen and Kieran Culkin as Ralphie. The movie was also directed by Bob Clark. In 2012, “A Christmas Story 2” arrived as a made-for-video cheapie that starred Daniel Stern and a largely unknown cast struggling to recapture the chemistry of the original. There was also a live theater broadcast of “A Christmas Story” that aired in 2017, starring Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos. These various attempts to further or remake the original story were more or less forgotten.
Summing It Up
Inspired by original author Jean Shepherd (“In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”), this sequel was willed into existence by original star Peter Billingsley, Nick Schenk and cowriter/director Clay Kaytis. Whereas “A Christmas Story” was told almost entirely from ten-year old Ralphie’s perspective, this sequel is told almost entirely from the perspective of middle-aged dad Ralph, who’s lost none of his childlike imagination (hence his writing aspirations), and shares his late father’s feverish obsession to deliver the perfect Christmas for his own family.
Shot in Bulgaria-for-Ohio/Indiana, the movie captures much of the feeling of the original, despite the swinging 1973 setting (which, I remind readers, was nearly 50 years ago). The 1970s setting is nicely exploited as well. The 1970s were a crazy time when a kid could join their dad at the local bar, ride in a car without seatbelts, or take a frightfully dangerous sled ride in an abandoned industrial site with no calls to Child Protective Services whatsoever. If I didn’t live through it, I would hardly believe it really happened. The movie is also populated with many returning cast members/characters, as well as countless visual homages and flashbacks, so consider yourself warned: If you’re not into 1983’s “A Christmas Story”, then this is not your movie. However, if you are a fan? Then you’re in for a nice-enough, risk-free treat.
My only real nits with the film are its intermittently sitcom-sounding dialogue, along with Julie Hagerty’s interpretation of Mrs. Parker, which lacks much of Melinda Dillon’s onscreen warmth. Beyond these minor issues, this sequel shines brightest (and wisest) when it pours on the nostalgia, and that’s perfectly okay—this is a movie about a man living in his own imagination, who forever waxes nostalgic for a childhood that was far better in memory. The schmaltz is practically mandated. Anything less would feel like a cheat.
As sequels go, “A Christmas Story Christmas” is not exactly “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Godfather 2,” but for sentiment’s sake, it more than gets the job done. You won’t need a double-dog dare to give this one a try.
Where To Watch
“A Christmas Story Christmas” is available to stream exclusively on HBOMax. The original “A Christmas Story” is available to watch/stream on TBS, HBOMax, PrimeVideo, as well as many other networks/streaming services, and is also available for purchase on DVD/BluRay from Amazon.com, Target.com and many other big ticket retailers. You’d probably have a harder time not finding “A Christmas Story”, in fact.