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Jack Mathews

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In My Family, Holidays Mean Chop Suey and A Christmas Story

Posted: 12/23/2013 3:12 pm

On Christmas day, as my wife and I have been doing for the last three decades, we will cap off a morning of gift-giving, mimosa-drinking and chips-dipping with a trip to a Chinese restaurant for a meal that typically begins with tea and hot and sour soup and is followed by pork-fried rice and other menu items that inspire us at the moment. You may prefer a turkey-centric repeat of Thanksgiving, we'll chow down on chop suey.

We began this ritual on Christmas Day in 1983, a little more than a month after we took our six- and four-year-old children to the old MGM lot in Culver City for a press screening of Bob Clark's A Christmas Story. It was a privilege granted us because of my job as movie critic for USA Today. Few of you will need reminding of the ending of what has become as much a holiday TV staple as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.

But for those who haven't had the pleasure, the movie follows the cozily close-knit Parker family of 1940s Hammond, Indiana in the days leading up to Christmas, with a particular focus on near-sighted nine-year-old Ralphie's plea for "an official Red Ryder carbine-action, two-hundred-shot Range Model air rifle" over his mother's predictable objection: "You'll shoot your eye out."

The movie ends with the family having their Christmas dinner in an empty Chinese restaurant after neighborhood dogs abscond with their Rockwell-perfect turkey. The lopping off of the head of a Peking duck by one of the Chinese waiters prompts the last of what are too many belly laughs in the film to count. What a joy it is to have a movie fulfill the promise of a good time that you make to your children.

As fulfilled as we were that night, there was no shortage of grinches among my critic colleagues. Writing for The New York Times, the late Vincent Canby wrote "There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in A Christmas Story, but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them."

Really? Had he just seen A Christmas Story or Jaws 3-D?

Whether it was the cool response from critics, the feeble marketing efforts of MGM, or -- as Roger Ebert later surmised -- the lack of enthusiasm for holiday-themed movies at the time, A Christmas Story performed poorly at the box office and was mostly gone from theaters by the time turkeys, geese and ducks were being slow-roasted around the country.

In our house, the enthusiasm had not dampened and when it was put to a family vote as to whether we'd have dinner at home or at Kim Lee's, the decision was unanimous. A family tradition was born and has been confirmed annually. Our daughter now lives on the other side of the continent from us, but our son is still with us and, after opening gifts and tuning in to the annual A Christmas Story marathon on TBS, he will join us for dinner at Kam Meng in Newport, Oregon.

I don't know if the subsequent TV life of A Christmas Story is responsible, but over the years, the Chinese restaurants where we've gone on Christmas have become increasingly crowded. "Reservations recommended"-crowded. The scene at Kem Meng's on Wednesday may look nothing like the joyful (if politically incorrect) ending of the movie where the Parkers are serenaded by the sincere Chinese staff ("Deck the harrs with boughs of horry, fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra"), but for us, it will feel very Christmassy even though, as usual, we will forego the beheading of a Peking duck.

 
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