Christmas Memories

by Harry T. Roman


In the Roman house, there are three mandatory Christmas movies that must be watched every year: Jean Shepherd's wonderful, "A Christmas Story"; "Miracle on 34th Street"; and National Lampoon's "Christmas Holiday". Of all, "A Christmas Story" is most cherished. Our family has watched that movie faithfully every year since it first came out in 1983.

When we first saw it together, our daughter Alisa was only about 13, and couldn't understand why I was laughing amidst tears throughout the movie. The story takes place in Jean Shepherd's Indiana hometown in the late 1940s, while Shepherd narrates a flashback about his Christmas journey through the big blue eyes and cherubic face of little Ralphie Parker.

"Dad, everything looks so plain in the movie, you know, old fashioned."

"Alisa, that is what the average home looked like then. Things were simple. There was no TV to speak of. Radio was still the major form of home entertainment. You used your imagination more. Folks read books."

"Did your city have a Christmas parade?"

"Yes there was a holiday parade just like in the movie. From Thanksgiving to Christmas day was a big deal for the kids. The excitement was incredible. The big Newark department stores were where all the action took place. Life was much different than today. No big malls or shopping areas that you drove to. Most folks had a Christmas tree in the living room and that was it. Folks did have outdoor lights like today. In fact, before we had all that air conditioning in the summer putting big loads on the electric utilities, the peak electric use time of year was around Christmas with all the house lights. Looking at this movie makes me feel like I was back home in the 1950s again, decorating our tree, wrapping presents, and putting up my electric trains. Now there was excitement, Lionel trains going around the tree with the room lights out!

"Did you ever want a present as bad as little Ralphie in the movie who wanted that BB gun?"

"Sure I did; and sometimes I got it and some times I did not."

"Did it snow as much as in the movie?"

"No not as much, it is colder in Indiana than New Jersey, but I do remember a white Christmas here and there."

On and on the Christmas questions went about what her father's early years were like. It is without question our favorite family movie. We always watch it with lots of buttered popcorn and soda, often spitting out large chunks in laughter. You know the funny parts are coming, but you cannot resist the laughter.

Lately, I have become fond of watching Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven in "The Bishop's Wife" where Grant plays an angel sent to help the Bishop (Niven) get perspective back in his life during the Holiday Season.

Just this past Thanksgiving night, while channel surfing, I caught the tail end of A Christmas Story, the part where Ralphie's father, after all the presents have been opened and the room is a mess, asks him if he enjoyed the presents, inquiring as to whether he got everything he wanted. Ralphie is somewhat stoic, but obviously dejected, because his coveted BB gun was not under the tree. His father suggests that maybe there is another present he has missed, that one over by the desk. There, wide-eyed Ralphie takes possession of his wonderful prize; and yours truly starts tearing up right on cue.

On this Thanksgiving evening, I remembered my old blue bicycle. It kind of went the same way as Ralphie's BB gun. Why I had not made the connection before, is beyond me. I had wanted a bicycle so very badly. It would allow me to ride around the block with my neighborhood friends who did have bikes. My old one was no longer safe to ride.

After I had opened my presents, Dad and Mom also asked me similar questions like Ralphie's father. Then Dad suggested that I take a look outside and check on something. When I did, there wedged in the hallway of our small Newark home on 4th Street was my first bike, a bright blue beauty with handle bar streamers, basket and horn. I nearly exploded with excitement. Maybe that's why I always tear-up at that movie scene. How I rode that bike until the wheels fell off!

At the end of little Ralphie's movie, Jean Shepherd, one of America's most loved radio story-tellers, narrates one last time as the snow comes down heavy on Christmas decorated homes……"It was the greatest Christmas I have ever known, or will ever know."

That Christmas back in Newark in 1957 was pretty much the same for me. It was the high point in Holiday excitement.

How I would like to take that old bicycle out one more time down past the houses and the old Dugan's bakery plant at the end of our street and then around the corner and up the street behind our house. It's all changed now. The sprawling Dugan's plant has been partially razed and new single-family homes are going in; but I think much of it would still look familiar. How much can you change in 50 years?

Jean Shepherd is gone now too, but he does appear in the movie. He is the bearded fellow in the line to see Santa Claus who speaks to little Ralphie. Thanks for the wonderful memories Jean. You have given us a piece of Americana from our innocent years, something that will live forever.

Now, what shall I wish for this year?


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