Of all the Christmas movies the classic 1983 film, “A Christmas Story,” starring Peter Billingsly, Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon remains my favorite. A period piece set in the late 1940s, the film is a caricature of Christmas for millions.
The movie captures golden moments of yesteryear: A cranky dad having to deal with “clinkers” in the furnace (email me if you know what clinkers are), a mother who hasn’t been able to sit down for a complete meal in years, a finicky youngster who would rather play with than eat his dinner and brothers waking up to find electric trains, a chemistry set, dinosaurs and spacemen under the Christmas tree.
“A Christmas Story” combines nostalgia, history and fun. Perhaps, too, the movie’s most enduring line, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” reminds each of us of our youth. But in today’s hyper-paced world, I fear kids miss the excitement of waiting for a “decoder pin” to appear in the mail or the wonderment of still believing in Santa Claus until their eighth or ninth year.
What made the movie so very personal for me was the fact the protagonists, Ralphie Parker, had a younger brother. And while Christmas memories of my younger brother Richard remain vivid, a tradition Richard has kept for the past 23 years is what prompted this commentary.
My brother lives in a Chicago neighborhood that Hollywood might use as a movie set. Row upon row of practically identical two-flats (I guess they’re called brownstones in some parts of the country) where on summer nights neighbors sit on their front steps, drink lemonade, talk about the Cubs and where everyone seems to know everyone else on the block.
The streets are narrow with kids playing ball, using curbs for bases in the summertime and end zone markers in the fall. Youngsters trick or treat on Halloween without fear, neighbors help not so able neighbors carry groceries and shovel snow in the winter. The homes are close together with 4-foot-wide “gangways” separating one house from the next.
Richard tells me that every year after the Christmas Eve dinner with friends, he makes a trip to Pilgrim Church on the corner for a candlelight service before going home to light candles in open glass jars he places on either side of his nine front porch steps. He then opens his home to anyone leaving the church and walking past his two-flat.
After the neighbors leave, he waits until after 1 a.m. and wanders down the alley behind his home and cuts through gangways of the homes where he knows some of the neighborhood children live.
Rich carries multiple sets of sleigh bells and rings them intermittently and just loud enough to be heard through closed storm windows. After ‘jingling’ the bells, he runs quickly to the next house so if someone wakes up and looks out their window they won’t see anything.
Richard has been doing this for years in hope that the neighborhood children hear the indistinct and fleeting sound of the bells. A while back, he related how after completing his Christmas Eve ritual this past year he received the nicest surprise from his neighbor Adam.
Adam is a 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound, larger-than-life, street-wise Irish cop in his mid-40s. He’s a neighborhood icon who when he’s not on duty is shoveling snow, organizing block parties and is a part of “the glue” that binds the people on the block. Adam is also jaded and cynical; nonetheless, Rich tells me he couldn’t ask for a better neighbor.
As it turned out, Adam was “the kid” that needed this dose of Christmas magic the most! And this past year on Christmas morning, my brother received the following email from Adam.
“Merry Christmas, Rich. Last night before I returned from my parents home I had a cup of coffee which kept me awake. Around 1:30 I plugged in my iPod and began listening to music when I thought I heard sleigh bells and thought to myself, wait, that’s not part of the song. I looked out the window and saw no one. I’m thinking to myself, who in the hell would be doing that ... and for a nanosecond I caught myself wondering, could it be?
“Well this morning I’m asking everyone, ‘Did you hear anything last night?’ Some of the neighbors responded that they did but thought they were dreaming. Finally, our neighbor Pat ‘gave in’ and told me about your tradition. Rich, for that fleeting moment I was a kid again, and I will always indebted to you for that gift. I will tell this story for the rest of my life. Outstanding Rich, flipping outstanding. Your neighbor, Adam.”
I wish each of you some magic this Christmas season.
Quote of the day: “Christmas is not an external event, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart” — Freya Stark
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.