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In what year does A Christmas Story take place? It’s a simple question, one that I thought I knew the answer for when my wife asked it last night during my annual review of a favorite film of mine. I went online to quickly confirm I was right to discover that the question is widely debated with five answers directly supported by the movie.
1937. The issue of Look Magazine that Ralphie sneaks the Red Ryder ad into was the December 21, 1937 edition. However, this is two years before the film adaptation of Wizard of Oz came out.
1939. It explains all the Wizard of Oz references, since that’s the year the movie came out. It’s also directly supported by a calendar barely visible on the wall during one of the dinner scenes. It’s turned to December with the 1st falling on a Friday. That’s 1939.
1940. The decoder pin that Ralphie gets from the Little Orphan Annie show is a model only given out in 1940.
1941. The mother distracts the Old Man by pointing out a game between the Packers and Bears “this Sunday”. The two teams played each other on a Sunday in December in 1941, and not again until 2011. Their previous Sunday December meeting was 1933.
1946. The Sox traded Bullfrog. “Bullfrog” was Bill Dietrich, and the Sox never actually traded him, but they did release him in 1946, albeit in September. Little Orphan Annie was long off the radio by this point.
So in what year does A Christmas Story take place? It’s easy to call the above discrepancies continuity errors, and there are several legitimately anachronistic items in the movie. It’s to be expected of a film put together on a $4 million budget that was never intended to be an enduring holiday classic. I choose a more charitable view. So let’s chalk it up to a form of everyone’s favorite narrative style, the unreliable narrator.
It’s not typically what we think as an unreliable narrator, but what narrator is more unreliable than someone trying to remember his childhood? This movie is clearly the memories of several Christmases fused together, whether intentionally or accidentally, supplemented with other memories from Jean Shepherd’s essays, and all time shifted as Shepherd was born about a decade earlier than Ralphie would have been. Thus the movie takes place in no specific year, and makes a point of not listing a specific year. Instead, it takes place in a childhood within an idealized world, where nothing that happens outside a young boy’s narrow perspective matters. It’s this timelessness that allows it to still resonate, and that makes the “what year” question ultimately futile, and perhaps even counter-productive.
Memories are funny things. They exaggerate, they blur together, they take on lives of their own. We see all of this, everything is the heightened realism of childhood experiences. The line to see Santa goes on forever, the weird kid at the end of it is…really damn weird. There’s a grown-up earnestness to Ralphie that comes from being the younger version of the narrator. It’s part of the charm of the movie, and what keeps people coming back to it, even if they have no nostalgic connection to the era.
Another example of unreliable narrator via cloudy memories? How I Met Your Mother. While there are points and episodes where the adult-Ted-relating-these-stories narrative falls down, there are those episodes where the writers have used this structure with great effect. Ted’s brief fling with a girl only referred to as “Blah Blah” by the characters, as older Ted can’t remember her name. Getting two stories of Lily being mad with Barney conflated, not remembering that one happened when she was pregnant and the other a year before. Not being able to remember the exact year for the Goat Story. This is all the unreliable narrator trying to pull memories out and getting them just not quite right.
We never remember things quite right, except for those people blessed (cursed?) eidetic memory or hyperthymesia. Except, it seems, in stories. Our fictional characters frequently remember the past clearly, lucidly, with no hiccups or faults of memory. This isn’t the way the human brain works. We are all unreliable narrators of our own past, typically because we paint ourselves with our own heroic tendencies or worst neuroses. Always remember this. Never forget this. Especially with a first person narration. Even if the story isn’t intended to have an unreliable narrator, in one way or another it still will.
I started this post not with a movie poster, as I typically do for Writer Reviews, but with a Dali painting. Most of you probably recognize it, many likely by name: The Persistence of Memory. It’s surrealist, certainly, but melting clocks is perhaps one of the best metaphors I’ve seen for how the human memory actually works. Things distort, they blur together, they’re not quite right. Remember that when your characters are remembering anything.