“It is only when we have plenty to eat—plenty of everything—that we begin to understand what freedom means.”
—Carlos Bulosan, “Freedom From Want”
The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943
A turkey dinner is not just a turkey dinner.
As we’re reminded in the shattering climax of A Christmas Story, a turkey dinner is turkey sandwiches. It’s turkey salad, turkey gravy, turkey hash. It’s turkey à la king. And, of course, it’s gallons of turkey soup. A turkey dinner is an entire week of turkey dinners.
And the Parker family will have none of it. Because—as that mythic patriarch The Old Man roars, his voice so thick with emotion that he seems to achieve a register beyond human speech—the sons of bitches Bumpuses have allowed their at least 785 smelly hound dogs to invade the family’s kitchen and obliterate their Christmas feast.
Of course, we all know The Old Man is a turkey junkie, a bona fide garley turkicanus freak whose eyes gleam with a wild and ravenous light for days before he carves his beloved bird. And so one’s heart aches for the loss of the Parkers’ future leftovers, and for the dashed gustatory hopes and dreams of The Old Man.
One’s heart aches because a turkey dinner is not just a turkey dinner. A turkey dinner is so much more.
The Old Man—father to 9-year-old Ralphie and his kid brother Randy and seen so exclusively from their perspective that he’s never granted a proper name—is a tall tale figure in his home. Much like Paul Bunyan is said to have carved the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe behind him, we learn early in A Christmas Story that when The Old Man battles the family furnace, he generates a cloud of profanity that hangs over Lake Michigan to this day; much like John Henry could drive steel by hand faster than a new-fangled steam drill, so can The Old Man change a blown spark plug faster than a jackrabbit on a date.
These legends are spun not by The Old Man himself—indeed, he seems largely unaware of his mythic status as he grumbles and bumbles his way in and out of the story—but rather by Ralphie’s adult self as he looks back on a Christmas season that serves less as narrative than as a tapestry of benign catastrophes. This narration is delivered by the unseen voice of Jean Shepherd, legendary radio storyteller on whose apocryphal memoirs the film is based, and as his attention bounces like a pinball from one calamity to the next, Shepherd’s invariably warm tone oscillates between hyperbolic solemnity and barely-suppressed paroxysms of laughter.
Shepherd’s storytelling style was often referred to as nostalgic, a label he chafed against given his mission to paint childhood as a years-long painfully awkward struggle rather than a carefree idyll. So, too, did he chafe against the label of memoirist given his penchant for exaggerating facts in search of a deeper truth. “One gets the impression,” writes Eugene Bergmann in his biography, Excelsior, You Fathead!, “young Jean ate almost nothing but salami sandwiches, and for supper, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and red cabbage, the commonplace food of the common American.” If the vision he spun of his youth was unbelievable and frequently contradictory, Shepherd had a favorite retort: “I’m a storyteller, not a historian.”
No figure in Shepherd’s tales was more unbelievable and contradictory than his father. Among Shepherd’s favorite anecdotes was the day at Comiskey Park that his father jeered Marius Russo until Russo retaliated with a home run pegged straight at the elder Shepherd’s head, but in another telling the vengeful slugger would be Lou Gehrig. Meanwhile, he liked to claim his father nearly caught Babe Ruth’s historic home run in the 1933 All-Star Game—it seems that hardly a homer was hit at Comiskey without being drawn to Shepherd’s father like a magnet. Shepherd was aggressively evasive whenever asked to prove the veracity of any of his stories, ostensibly to preserve their value as tales rather than facts, but after Shepherd’s death, his friend Fred Barzyk revealed a crucial truth: Shepherd’s father, the real-life basis for the character played so endearingly by Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story, abandoned his family, running off with his secretary.
That’s the thing about parents; it’s so much easier to paint them in primary blocks than the infinite shades of reality because the youthful mind reels at the idea they might not be an eternal rock for us to push against, always stubbornly unmoving but always reliably there. And in the few moments of A Christmas Story that Ralphie and Randy are absent, The Old Man and Mrs. Parker (likewise never granted a name of her own) drop their authoritative bluster long enough to admit, whether to one another or just themselves, that they’re making the whole thing up as they go along.
The tall tale is one of the few uniquely American art forms, and according to folklorist Carolyn S. Brown, it arose in response to the awe felt by early settlers as they surveyed this vast and unknowable continent. These stories, she writes in her 1989 book The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature, “became a tool and an emblem of national and regional identity.”
And just as much as those early settlers, children are strangers in a strange land, forced to try and make sense of a world populated by adults whose motivations often seem as capricious as the weather. So what would provide greater security and comfort to Ralphie: knowing his father as a man stretched thin and frustrated with a lousy appliance, or as one of the most feared furnace fighters in Northern Indiana?
It can be so frustrating to have parents, particularly at mealtimes.
With precious few exceptions—most notably that thwarted turkey dinner—the kitchen of the Parker household is a Thunderdome of revulsion. When Ralphie prods a vat of gelatinous cabbage with resigned disgust, or when the pathologically picky Randy refuses to take even a single bite of meat loaf, the Parker parents sigh and then trot out those hoary old negotiating tactics—Oh come on, you love cabbage! And hey, think about the starving people in China!—those classic gaslighting gambits that one has to suspect have never worked on a single reluctant eater in the history of family dinners.
From an adult perspective of course, those shortcuts are so appealing. They provide the dimmest hope that just this once a child might miraculously unlock buried memories of beloved cabbage dinners and new perspectives on the value of a hot meal. But really it’s nothing more than a parry in the sisyphean dinnertime duel, a checkmark for the “negotiation” box before moving on to the threat portion of the evening, each maneuver only serving to make the child dig in their heels further in the face of these bafflingly inflexible authorities—Why won’t you just let me do what I want? Wouldn’t that be nicer for all of us?
And in the short term, yes, of course it would be more pleasant to relent! If the Parkers let their children do whatever they want, eat whatever they want, then they’d be rewarded with peaceful relief if only for a moment—which is often as long as a harried parent even dares dream of. But there’s that unspoken parental impossibility: the futility of your children ever seeing the long game. Giving up on dinner might end the stalemate, but it might also mean an undernourished and moody night, which could be the beginning of a whole moody week—and no child, believing defensively in their ultimate control over their emotions, would ever be willing to acknowledge the role nourishment plays in their temperament. Preventing that disastrous hunger by providing something more appealing, though, could mean forfeiting the chance for wholesome nutrition, not to mention the chance of ever maintaining adequate authority in future negotiations that might be even more important than what’s for dinner. To Ralphie and Randy, the battle over dinner is the battle between a fun night and an annoying one. For their parents, it could be no less than the difference between the success and failure of this grand experiment of a family.
The theory goes that a sit-down meal is the anchor that holds a family together when otherwise they might drift to the four winds. Any parenting manual will tell you that ensuring everyone eats together at the end of the day is the A-plus number-one guaranteed way to put children on the road to success in life. What a simple fix, easiest trick in the book. But like so many myths of the American family, A Christmas Story sticks a playful thumbtack into this wholesome ritual as the Parker parents stand off against their children in a cold war of nutrition, each side an immovable object to the other’s unstoppable force. There really is no time like a mealtime to make a child wonder, Why are my parents like this?
It’s impossible to identify in which year A Christmas Story takes place.
This was an intentional elision on the part of Shepherd and director Bob Clark, an effort to place the story in a sort of hazy, nostalgic anytime free of troubling real-world events that might cloud the story of the Parker family’s giddy and dizzying Yuletide season. But while the specter of World War II may be largely absent, one historical fact is unavoidable no matter in what year the story is ostensibly set: while Ralphie and Randy would have no memory of the Great Depression, for their parents, that era of struggle would be fresh and raw. A decade or so prior to the events of A Christmas Story, half of this household would have operated under the constant awareness that it was their great good fortune to have any food at all.
Ralphie and Randy live in a world of comparative plenty. Food is in such great supply that not only is an annual lavish turkey dinner treated as a given, Ralphie can attempt to curry his teacher’s favor with a massive basket of fresh fruit crowned by an enormous pineapple (mostly an exotic item in the 1940s)—and that’s not even to mention the significant luxury represented by filling a Christmas list with name brand toys like the BB gun that serves as the story’s MacGuffin. It’s a world that President Franklin Roosevelt put forth as an American aspiration in his 1941 State of the Union, commonly known as the “Four Freedoms” speech. Every person on Earth, Roosevelt claimed, should be entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s joke, the ones so acclimated to their environment they don’t even know they’re underwater, Ralphie and Randy exist blissfully unaware of their American freedoms. And that’s as it should be; it’s every parent’s dream that their children be protected, at least until somewhere around adolescence, from the awareness that life can be anything but basically decent. When The Old Man grumbles about using a screwdriver and plumber’s helper to force-feed Randy his meat loaf, or when Mrs. Parker crams a bar of soap in Ralphie’s mouth as penance for his premature use of the queen-mother of dirty words, there’s a performative nature to the gesture that functions as a sort of sleight of hand—look over here, focus on me, because as long as I’m the authority, then you don’t have to worry about any other more frightening authority that might or might not have your best interest at heart. As much as the myth of Santa Claus, this is the essential dream we sustain for our children: that the world they experience around this dinner table is, for all intents and purposes, the entire world.
Two years after Roosevelt’s speech, and shortly before the invasion of Italy by Allied forces of a war that may as well not exist in Ralphie’s world, The Saturday Evening Post commissioned from Norman Rockwell a series of four paintings, to be accompanied by essays from contemporary literary luminaries, that would interpret and illustrate the four freedoms in hopes of bolstering American spirits and remind them of what exactly they were defending. To symbolize freedom of speech, Rockwell chose a man speaking up in a crowd; for freedom of worship, he chose a congregation bowed in prayer. But for the less literal freedom from want, Rockwell had to find a more conceptual tack. And, of course, what could he have chosen but a family sitting down for a turkey dinner?
Because a turkey dinner is not just a turkey dinner. A turkey dinner is what it means to be free.
I became a father in October 2016 on the day my daughter was born. But I became a Dad three months earlier on the first day it rained upon the home my wife and I had just purchased in which to start our family. As I stood on the porch watching the downpour, a thought sprang unbidden into my head: This is great, this is really gonna help the lawn. In that moment, I knew something in me had shifted. While I wasn’t paying attention, I had become a capital-D Dad.
I gave up a decent amount in the bargain when we started a family—in becoming responsible for new life, I gave up the freedom to spontaneously stay out late with friends; in moving to the suburbs, I gave up easy access to the cultural vibrancy of a major city. They’re freedoms I gave up willingly and eagerly in exchange for my lifelong dream of domesticity, but even as my life fell into the idyllic trajectory I’d longed for, I would stumble into these uncanny pockets of failing to recognize the Dad in the mirror.
Rather than fight the changes, I wholeheartedly gave in. I embraced my newfound passion for the lawn, for stacking firewood with surgical precision to prevent collapse, for achieving perfectly perpendicular grill marks on a steak, for all those things society tells us dads are supposed to care about. Faced with so many incremental reframings of who I was and what I represented, I chose, in effect, to become a cartoon. At first it was a mechanism to help anchor me in this new identity, but as my kids grow older, as my daughter careens straight into the “But why?” phase of development, I realize that allowing myself to become that cartoon sends a message to them, as well: I am going to be a stereotypical Dad, because a stereotypical Dad is a man who loves the job, and that’s a man you can trust to be there.
When you’re a child, everything you observe in your parents conforms to your personal narrative of the world. You know in a theoretical way that they exist outside your field of view, but exercising something like emotional object permanence, you construct a narrative of your parents’ identity out of the slices you do witness. It’s an unconscious reflex in a child, but once you hit adulthood you realize what a massive responsibility it is. Everything your child watches you do represents a slight recalibration in their understanding of how the world works. So if you wake up in the morning and put on the domestic equivalent of a commedia dell’arte mask, then there’s a buffer between the reality your children experience and the messier one you’re wading through. If you choose to present yourself as, say, a bona fide garley turkicanus freak, then inhabiting that role is a reminder not to let your other responsibilities—as a guy who struggles to keep the finances in order; a guy who can’t balance deadlines to save his life; a guy who is about one more innocent “But why?” away from nervous collapse—slip through. And soon enough, you realize that sublimating your distractions for the benefit of your children isn’t even a conscious choice anymore. It’s just who you are.
Is the mythic Old Man simply a role played by Mr. Parker? In his sterner moments, it does seem like a clear put-on. But then there’s the moment when he holds Randy on his shoulders to search together for Santa at the Christmas parade. When they finally catch sight of Saint Nick, it’s hard to tell whose glee is greater. Is Mr. Parker excited because he knows Randy is getting his wish, or is he genuinely thrilled by the sight of Santa? Or, after a decade of fatherhood, is there no longer a meaningful difference?
After those (at least) 785 smelly hound dogs belonging to the sons of bitches Bumpuses have laid waste to the Parker family’s turkey dinner, Ralphie and Randy look on, shell shocked, as Mrs. Parker collapses into lamentation like one of Euripides’ Trojan women. Across the kitchen, The Old Man straightens his robe, examines what’s left of a wing, and then throws up his hands. With just moments left in the film, we brace ourselves for the final apocalyptic Old Man breakdown, the Old Testament fury to which all these battles with furnaces and spark plugs and smelly hound dogs have been building.
But instead, The Old Man announces, “All right. Everybody upstairs. Get dressed. We are going out to eat.”
It’s not remotely what we’ve come to expect from this suburban Pecos Bill. In this minor gesture, The Old Man becomes just…a man. A father, a husband, an exhausted, middle-aged office drone with thinning hair who’s reaching down deep in search of the wherewithal to save his family’s Christmas.
Smash cut to: The Chop Suey Palace, where the Parkers are the sole customers for dinner. The scene is pure euphoric catharsis (though the less said about the sore-thumb, retrograde ethnic humor the better). A family that has so often careened off each other as they’re gripped by overlapping cyclones of midwestern misadventure is suddenly united, and united in that way a family can only be when they’ve all been dropped on equal footing into an unexpected situation, each as blissfully lost as the next.
There may be no more delightful beat in American cinema than when the server deposits a roast duck, complete with lolling head, onto the Parkers’ table. “It’s a beautiful duck!” The Old Man exclaims, valiantly attempting to keep the dinner on the rails even as Mrs. Parker battles a debilitating fit of the giggles. Randy and Ralphie crowd around to see, equally thrilled by the morbidity of the dish and by the fact that, for once, their parents are struggling in the social deep end just as much as they are. And then the server decapitates the duck with a cleaver and the family first screams in unison, and then howls laughing in unison, and then finally applauds in unison. In this most incongruous of Christmas dinners, they have finally found themselves tuned to the same joyful wavelength.
It’s hard to imagine their planned turkey dinner would have been nearly so ecstatic. It would have been familiar; The Old Man would have chewed obliviously as his wife dashed around in service of her brood; Randy would have run up against something yucky he wouldn’t eat and brought the meal to a halt.
But at The Chop Suey Palace, as adult Ralphie promises in voiceover, “all [is] right with the world.” Because a Chinese duck dinner isn’t just a Chinese duck dinner. A Chinese duck dinner is something the Parkers will cherish long after innumerable turkey dinners have faded into the haze.