A Christmas Story
“Ho, Ho, Ho.” The black boot filled the lens of the camera, pushing Ralphie down the slide. The scene is all too familiar; A Christmas Story is, by now, a piece of Americana, a staple in the particularly American mode of celebrating Christmas.
I think what I’ve always loved about A Christmas Story was its uncanny ability to be unabashedly funny. Forged from the childhood memories — even if fictionalized — of Ralphie, the story moves through the vicissitudes of a young child’s aspirational life. At base, A Christmas Story is about desire’s hilarious possibilities; it’s about a kind of yearning that only one specific thing can fulfill, driving the person who has the desire to do everything from cuss in front of his father, to write a horribly drafted classroom assignment. This singular desire weaves the entire story together; even when the gun isn’t the protagonist of the film, desire drips throughout the film, hidden under the righteous violence enacted against a bully, buried beneath the explicit sexuality of a leg lamp. If A Christmas Story has a theme (all puns intended), it is the many ways desire manifests itself. From the father’s desire to be a winner — and we know he’s the white working-class person whose vote all Democrats want — to the mother’s desire to get a break and just be a woman for once, A Christmas Story highlights how desire can and will drive people together — and, even if for a few hilariously funny moments, split people apart.
I remember the movie vividly because, ever since my childhood, my family and I have watched the movie non-stop on TBS every Christmas we had together. The movie was a constant; as smells of turkey and ham and dressing filled the house, as toys and video games populated the soundwaves in our home, it was always there, ready for our inevitable return to the screen. We’d see the movie in pieces, fluctuating between watching the movie and taking naps, playing with our toys, or playing games with the family. It was always there as background, maintaining a festive and playful mood during the entire day. I haven’t been home in a while, so I haven’t had an opportunity to see the movie in this piecemeal way in some time. But I remember. Vividly.
I’ve grown up quite a bit since those days. The ways of the world have made me weary and wary; my blackness has come to color the totality of my existence. And this isn’t always a bad thing. There’s something incredibly transformative about the thought of a black family joining together, lovingly sitting with each other as we laugh and play with one another. Even if the only hint of blackness we hear in A Christmas Story are the black carolers singing “Joy to the World” in the background of the opening scene, the movie did something for me, for my family, as it offered a gathering space. Those days were days of not being made aware of the suffering of my people; they were filled with black potentiality, with the encouragement of a mother and the support of a father. When I think of Christmas, I think of A Christmas Story, and I remember those times, realizing how blessed I truly am to have been born into a family for whom family was the most important thing. And so, I share my own Christmas Story, my own story of fulfilled desire around the holidays.
The American holiday calendar is quite interesting. It’s organized around the end of the year, when leaves turn colors and when jackets start to emerge. Packed into three months, Americans go into celebratory mode from October to December. I’ve never been a fan of Halloween — it’s a bit too blackface-ish for me — but Thanksgiving and Christmas did work for me. And on Thanksgiving of 2008, I found my future wife. It was truly the story of fairy tales; we’d been friends before, and somehow, on Thanksgiving Day, we’d found ourselves alone. We were both in divinity school at the time, and Andrea was also working full-time as a nurse — which meant she had to work that day. I couldn’t afford to fly home, so I did what many black people do during this time; I house-hopped from one dinner to the next, filling myself with food cooked with love. It was a joyous time, but by the end of the day, Andrea, I, and a few of our friends had planned to kick it at Andrea’s house.
As these things go, things happen, so all of our friends ended up at home later that night — which left me and Andrea at her house alone. No, we didn’t have sex; instead, we watched movies — horrible movies — together, and then went to the mall for some early Black Friday shopping. I bought a pair of Sperry boat shoes; I don’t remember Andrea buying anything. While we were at the mall, we walked and talked, and then we found ourselves at a kiosk that was selling hammocks. We laid in those hammocks, and for what seemed like hours, we talked and laughed with each other; although there were people walking by, it was as if it was only Andrea and me in that mall. And during that time, something happened. Andrea got a chance to see the vulnerable me, the me who wasn’t performing, the me who was insecure and quiet and introspective. And I got to see her at her most comfortable state, laughing and being amazing, joking and sharing the brilliance I’d always knew was there. On those hammocks, our roles reversed; I went from the garrulous social butterfly to the quiet introspective person, and she emerged as the brilliant, beautiful, incredibly funny person that I’d never seen before. We fell in love right there, in the middle of a mall, filled with people who meant nothing at all.
From that moment on, we talked constantly. And when I went home for Christmas break after the semester ended, we talked on the phone every day for hours on end. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I had found the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with. And even though I didn’t know I was going to marry her, I did know she was special. So I asked my mom for just one gift for Christmas that year: that I fly back to Nashville on Christmas Day.
My mom was flabbergasted. Until this point, I never missed a Christmas with my family. It was the most important day for me and my family, and I cherished it more than any other day of the year. But this time, it was different. Not understanding but nevertheless happy, my mom acquiesced. “You must really like this one,” she said, and we bought the ticket.
Andrea knew nothing of this, so when the day came, I called her in the morning and told her merry Christmas. She spent time with her family, and I spent some time with mine; my family drove me to the airport, and within a few short hours, I was back in Nashville. I texted her to see where she was, and when I realized she was at home, I went to her door. I can’t remember if I texted or knocked on the door; all I remember is the expression on her face. It was one of joy, one that signaled that she truly was happy for me to be there.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped celebrating Christmas as the time in which gifts are given. From the lengthening of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales to the rampant racial and classist problems that plague the American variant of this holiday, I have come to focus more on the people who I desire to be with on that day. For many people, Christmas is a time of sadness precisely because of this point; desire is satiated by the object of desire, and for many people who have lost loved ones, they can no longer fulfill their yearning to love and be loved by those they want to see the most.
I share my story because I think, more than anything else, Christmas is about the celebration of love, about the celebration of one’s communion with one’s beloveds — whether this beloved be a salvific figure, family members, or one’s life partner. I can’t imagine what it might be like to not have Andrea here, but I hope that, in sharing my story, people will be reminded that, beyond white Santa Clauses and Christmas presents, beyond Black Friday Sales and whitewashed nativity scenes, beyond the actual narrative of A Christmas Story, there remains that all-too-human desire to love and to be loved.
May you all be well, beloveds. And Merry Christmas.
Biko Mandela Gray, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of American Religion at Syracuse University. Although he teaches on race, religion, and identity, beneath his teaching and research interests is a strong sense that love can and will change things. You can, of course, follow him on Twitter @bikomandelagray.