Digging into “A Christmas Story”

Since its release in 1983, “A Christmas Story” has become a treasured part of the Christmas canon. And it’s no wonder—just about everyone can relate to Ralphie Parker’s quest for the elusive Red Ryder BB gun. It’s a common enough theme for kids to pine for a certain Christmas present. And most of us have experienced the joy that comes with opening a sought-after toy, as well the crushing disappointment that comes with finding a very thoughtful, yet ultimately terrible gift under the Christmas tree—like, say, a set of homemade pink bunny pajamas.

But while Christmas Day may occasionally be a letdown in the present department, the days and weeks leading up to it are a time of pure excitement and anticipation. We don’t always get our Red Ryder BB gun, but just knowing the possibility exists is enough to make the season memorable. This is why we love “A Christmas Story”.

Ralphie’s quest for the ultimate gift takes us back to a more innocent time in our lives—a time when getting that special gift meant the world to us. But the film itself shows an idealized slice of early-twentieth century America. The film takes place long before many its most devout fans were even alive. But when, exactly, was the movie set? The movie offers many clues, but let’s first start with the source—its author, Jean Shepherd.

Jean Shepherd, known to fans simply as “Shep”, was born in Chicago in 1921, and spent his formative years in nearby Hammond, Ind. While the exterior shots of the house were filmed in Cleveland, and many other scenes were filmed in Toronto, the film’s setting of Hohman, Ind. is a barely-concealed version of Shepherd’s midwest hometown.

In fact, many details in the film are pretty true to Shepherd’s childhood neighborhood of Hessville. As the movie tells us, Ralphie lived on Cleveland Street, and walked to Warren G. Harding Elementary School. The original school was built in 1924 at 3211 165th Street (now Cleveland Street). These details are lifted straight from She’s childhood. The original Warren G. Harding school is long gone, in its place is Harding Park. A new Warren G. Harding school stands across the street from the original site.

A quick look at at a map gives a good idea of what Ralphie’s Shep’s short walk to school might have been like. And if it ever seemed unlikely that Randy could run home so quickly to fetch their mother while Ralphie was beating the snot out of the bully Scut Farkus, you can see that it was a short two blocks through the alley from the school to Shep’s childhood house at 2907 Cleveland Street.

While it’s somewhat easy to pin down the locations of “A Christmas Story”, determining exactly when it took place is a less exact science. If we assume that nine-year-old Ralphie was that age at the same time as Jean Shepherd, then we could settle the question and say the film takes place in 1930. But we know the movie isn’t strictly biographical, and there are plenty of details that point to a later time.

A Smokey Stover comic is seen while Ralphie decodes Little Orphan Annie’s secret message. The strip, first published in 1935, pushes up the date up at least five years. We see Snow White in the Higbees Department Store window, which would then point to 1937 as the earliest possible date.

Ralphie’s mom’s copy of Look magazine where he cleverly plants an ad for the gun is dated Dec. 21, 1937, but Ralphie’s Jan. 1939 issue of Boys’ Life points to 1938. However, it appears as though the Parker family likes to keep old magazines around the house, as the appearance of the Wizard of Oz characters at Higbees would indicate 1939 is a much more likely date. While there’s strong evidence for 1939, It’s possible to push the date ahead yet another year. If you take a close look at Ralphie’s Little Orphan Annie decoder pin, you’ll see that it is clearly marked “1940”.

The Little Orphan Annie radio show itself is a clue for the latest possible date, as it went off the air in 1942. We also see a man and woman in uniform outside Higbees department store, but there’s no mention at all of World War II. That makes 1941 a virtually impossible year for the fim’s setting, as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would have happened at almost the exact same time as the movie. And in 1942, the United States was deeply involved in the war in the Pacific. The lack of any mention of these events implies that the United States was not involved yet.

While it’s certainly still a topic for debate among fans, 1940 seems like the most likely date, mainly because there’s no evidence against it. The real answer, however, is that the film has no definite date. While some parts of the short stories that comprise “A Christmas Story” were semi-autobiographical, they were never intended to be accurate recollections of Shep’s childhood. Instead, they represent an idealized version of Christmas from a child’s point of view. Much of the film comes from stories that Shep originally told on his popular radio programs and from his short stories that appeared in Playboy.

These stories were later collected in Shepherd’s 1966 book, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash“. In the book, an older Ralphie returns to Hohman after having moved away to New York many years prior. He seeks out his old pal Flick, now a bartender, and the two proceed to share old memories, starting with a chapter titled “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder nails the Cleveland Street Kid”, which would become the main storyline in “A Christmas Story”. Other chapters, such as “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil” and “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art” didn’t originally involve Christmas, but they were a natural fit for the movie.

Shepherd was a prolific presence across radio, television and print media, and “Duel in the Snow” was a holiday favorite among fans of Shepherd’s radio program long before Ralphie hit the silver screen. With a direct-to-video rehash sequel, constant DVD and Blu-Ray re-releases, and an annual stream of new merchandise, there’s no reason to doubt that audiences will continue to relate to Ralphie Parker’s epic struggle for many Christmases to come.