With A Christmas Story Christmas, you come for the nostalgia and stay for the emotionally powerful heart of the movie. Among major family-friendly holiday films, it’s rare to see death and loss mentioned, let alone utilized as a vital aspect of the plot — but that’s exactly what happens here. The result is a surprising ride that will catch you by surprise and leave you reaching for the tissues by the time the credits roll.
The opening minutes are comparable to what one might expect from the sequel of a movie that came out in 1983. Aided by a time jump, the story quickly reintroduces the audience to Ralph “Ralphie” Parker (Peter Billingsley), who is all grown up; he is now married with children. The return of Billingsley alone, who wasn’t a part of 2012’s A Christmas Story 2, is a lovely blast from the past, and the film could easily coast on that dynamic. Instead, more than so many others in the genre, this movie has something to say — and it sends that message in a striking way.
After the beginning of the film highlights Ralphie’s new life, he is brought back to the past when his mom calls him and tells him that his dad has passed away. In A Christmas Story, “The Old Man” (Darren McGavin) was featured in a number of classic moments, and the character remains iconic in the realm of holiday movies. McGavin passed away in 2006, and A Christmas Story Christmas was subsequently dedicated to his memory. Admittedly, having watched the movie without reading any interviews about it, I didn’t know what to expect whatsoever. As a result, the mention of Ralph’s dad’s death and its constant presence in the story was an eye-opener. But the narrative overcomes this initial hesitation by beautifully paying tribute to his memory.
Time and again, it’s emphasized that “The Old Man” was the master of celebrating Christmas. When Ralph and his family go to visit his mom, she pleads with him to make Christmas magical because that’s what his dad would have wanted. Of course, that request comes with plenty of pressure, as it’s made by someone who is grieving the loss of her husband. The fate of Christmas itself is practically placed on Ralph’s shoulders — at least in the context of his own family — so he must hit a home run by making the celebration special for his saddened mom, his young kids, and the fresh memory of his father.
As one could probably guess, everything goes wrong at one point or another. Ralph accidentally blasts his daughter with a snowball, temporarily blinding her in one eye. Ralph delivers a Herculean effort in getting the Christmas shopping done, but the presents are stolen from the car after he has to take care of his wounded daughter, Julie (Julianna Layne). Once these obstacles are cleared, Ralph nearly ends up in jail when he steals a decorative star for the Christmas tree, but fate shines kindly on him. Ralph returns home without serving jail time, and when he wakes up in the morning, he receives a Christmas miracle. Here, the story reaches another gear.
The family is wonderfully surprised to learn that “The Old Man” had one more holiday-saving move under his sleeve; because he was so passionate about Christmas, he bought the year’s presents before he passed away. Ralph’s mom happened to find them in time for Christmas morning, so Mr. Parker’s spirit is more present than ever in this scene. His family opens the gifts, which turn out to be exactly what each one of them wanted. This resolution would have been a perfectly nice ending, but the movie swings for the fences and delivers an even sweeter conclusion.
Throughout the film, Ralph struggles to get his first novel published as he faces numerous rejections. Left without hope, Ralph intends to go back to his typical job after the holidays and essentially give up his dream of being a writer. But ahead of Christmas, he is tasked with writing his dad’s obituary, and he eventually writes a deeply personal story about his memories of “The Old Man.” While Ralph was desperately trying to save Christmas, his wife submitted the draft to the newspaper, who ran it in time for Christmas morning. Ralph instantly becomes a sensation, as other outlets want to publish the piece as well, and he is offered a job as a columnist. His dream comes true, and as the cherry on top, Ralph sits in his father’s chair and reads the story aloud to his family. As he begins speaking, the film transitions into Jean Shepard’s narration from A Christmas Story, making it clear that Ralph wrote about the events in the first movie.
A Christmas Story Christmas hits all the right notes for a holiday movie and then some. It has family-friendly humor and, for the most part, its tone stays fairly light. But it also digs deeper and examines grief and loss, which can be especially impactful during the holidays. Many films in the genre avoid these topics because they’re seen as too heavy, but A Christmas Story Christmas dives right in and, in the process, delivers a story that has more emotional staying power than many of its peers.