Set in an undeterminate year of the 1940s, Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley
) is a nine year-old boy living in the small town of Hohman, Indiana. His older self (voice of Jean Shepherd
) narrates his experiences and thoughts through the short weeks before Christmas. As he, a few friends, and his younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella
) look into the display window of a local store, Ralphie has his eyes set on the only item he wants for Christmas; an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, with a compass in the stock and "this thing which tells time" (a sundial).
Knowing full well that he could never request this item openly to his parents, Ralphie sneaks advertisements for the gun into his parents' magazines the next morning. At the breakfast table, he fails to bring up the subject in casual conversation, and with less subtlety than was intended. He then accidentally lets slip his desire to his mother (Melinda Dillon
) who immediately rejects the idea with the dreaded phrase: "you'll shoot your eye out."
Disappointed, Ralphie enjoys a reverie about how he alone, armed with his gun, stands between his family and a gang of stripe-shirted ruffians in a Western-style standoff. Meanwhile his grouchy father (Darren McGavin
) is forced to battle the temperamental house furnace in the basement amid a slur of inaudible curses.
While walking through the frozen, snow-covered neighborhood on his way to school, Ralphie meets up his two friends, Flick (Scott Schwartz
) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb
), while Randy lags behind, heavily bundled under a thick, wool snow jumper that leaves his arms sticking straight out. Before class, Flick and Schwartz argue over what would happen should someone stick their tongue to a frozen flag pole, engaging in a delicate nuance of phrase during which Schwartz dares Flick to stick his tongue to the pole. Upon the dreaded triple-dog-dare, Flick puts his tongue to the pole to find it stuck tight. He starts screaming but the others run into school as the bell rings. Their teacher, Miss Shields (Tedde Moore
), notices Flick's absence and, when she sees him outside, calls the fire department and local police and tries to comfort Flick. As the students watch with excitement, Ralphie feels a pang of guilt. Still, when Flick is escorted to his desk, a bandage around his tongue, and Miss Shields gives a brief speech on how whoever put Flick up to sticking his tongue to the pole should atone for their misdeed. But Ralphie explains that kids know better not to get caught. Miss Shields then gives them an assignment; to write a theme about what they want for Christmas. Ralphie sees this as an opportunity to write about the Red Ryder gun, hoping that his teacher will sympathize with him and secure a little reprieve with her authority as an adult.
On the way home, Ralphie, Flick, Schwartz, and Randy are confronted by a local bully named Scut Farkus (Zack Ward
) and his toadie Grover Dill (Yano Anaya
). Poor Schwartz is subjected to a painful hammerlock before they all run away, screaming shrilly, while Randy lags behind unable to keep up wearing his thick winter clothing.
Ralphie makes it home and finishes his theme just as his father comes home, shouting excitedly, before being surrounded by the neighbor's dogs. Ralphie watches from his window above and comments how his neighbors, the Bumpuses, owned dozens of bloodhounds that ignored everyone else on earth except for the Old Man. Mr. Parker exclaims that he won a grand prize in a local magazine sweepstakes, showing his wife the telegram that says it will be delivered that night.
During dinner that night, Randy displays his typical dissent for food and refuses to eat until his mother playfully asks him how pigs eat. Randy dives into his food face first, laughing hysterically, while Mr. Parker and Ralphie watch with mild disgust. Then, the doorbell rings and everyone immediately stops. They run to the door where Mr. Parker allows the delivery men to wheel in a large box and opens it with fervor to reveal a lamp that's designed to look like a woman's leg, complete with stocking, high heel shoe, and a shade that looks like a skirt. While Mr. Parker gushes over it, Ralphie's mother is clearly uncomfortable, especially when her husband tells her to display it in the front window for the entire neighborhood to see. Only one thing draws Ralphie and his brother away from the glow of electric sex gleaming in the window, and thats their favorite radio program; Little Orphan Annie.
The next day at school, Ralphie hands in his theme and has a momentary daydream where his paper is given the best grade in class before being brought out of it by Miss Shields. After school, he and his friends are once again chased through the alley by Scut and Grover.
Upon arriving home, he checks the mail to see that his long awaited package from the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society with his secret message decoder pin has arrived. He listens to the encrypted message on the radio that night and rushes up to the bathroom to decode it, only to realize that the secret message is nothing but an advertisement for Ovaltine. Wiser, but nonetheless disappointed, Ralphie casually swears under his breath.
Later that night, the furnace blows black smoke into the kitchen again and the Old Man rushes down to do battle. Mrs. Parker appears complacent as she strolls into the living room with a watering can before a loud crash is heard. Ralphie watches as his father rushes up the stairs and finds his wife holding his broken lamp. She admits it was an accident before shouting, after Mr. Parker claims she was jealous that he won it, that it was the ugliest lamp she's ever seen. Mr. Parker attempts to fix the lamp but it quickly falls apart, much to his wife's amusement. He musters all the dignity he can as he takes the remains to the back yard and buries them.
At school, the students bring in apples as small gifts for Miss Shields before Christmas. Ralphie gives her a large fruit basket, hoping that it will help sway her final decision on his paper.
That evening, the family goes out to pick a Christmas tree. On the way home, the car blows a tire and Mr. Parker goes outside to fix it. When his mother encourages him to help his father, Ralphie is only happy to do so, but when his father accidentally knocks the hubcap that Ralphie is using to hold the tire bolts out of his hands, Ralphie utters the big one that he heard his father say in private over and over again. Ralphie says: "oh, fudge!" (Actually the F-dash-dash-dash word).
At home, his mother puts a bar of soap in his mouth, one that he dislikes in taste above all others he's had the opportunity to sample. His mother asks where hes heard that word and, although Ralphie admits to us that his old man used the word as fluently as an artist would use paint, he chickens out and blurts out his friend Schwartz's name. When Mrs. Parker calls Schwartz's mother and tells her, we hear her screaming maniacally and giving Schwartz a sound beating.
Sent to bed early, Ralphie cries to himself and fantasizes about visiting his parents years into the future to reveal that all the soap sessions his mother gave him resulted in premature blindness, causing his parents to moan and grieve over their wrongdoing.
At school, Ralphie is handed his theme back from Miss Shields. He looks in horror at the large C+ stamped across the top with the phrase "you'll shoot your eye out". He imagines his teacher clad in a witch's outfit, laughing at him next to his harlequin mother who must have surely gotten to her. Ralphie spends the rest of the day in class feeling depressed and hopeless that he'll never get the Ryder BB gun.
On the way home, Ralphie walks alone and is suddenly hit in the face with a snowball. He takes his glasses off and sees Scut Farkus and Grover Dill approach him. Ralphie tears up until Scut starts to mock him and laugh, something that causes Ralphie, in all his disappointment and anguish, to snap and charge angrily at Scut, tackling him to the ground and beating him. Grover runs off as the neighborhood kids cheer Ralphie on. Randy picks up his discarded glasses and goes to get their mother who arrives just as Ralphie is finishing a rant of slurred curses. She gets a distraught Ralphie off of Scut and helps him walk home. Scut is left to pick himself up with a bloodied nose.
Ralphie is inconsolable by the time he gets home, though his mother tries to calm him and puts him to bed until dinner. Meanwhile, Randy hides himself under the kitchen sink, crying that "Daddy's gonna kill Ralphie". When Mr. Parker does come home, Ralphie goes downstairs, fearing the worst and knowing full well the mix of bad words he'd said during the fight. However, his mother is sympathetic and downplays the fight to Mr. Parker, giving a grateful Ralphie a reprieve. As Ralphie goes to sleep that night, the "Scut Farkus Affair" behind him, he decides the best way to receive his BB gun is to ask Santa himself.
The next night, (Christmas Eve) the family goes downtown to watch the Christmas parade. Ralphie is impatient and keeps asking to leave early so that they can see Santa Claus. As soon as Santa goes by in his float, his parents concede and take him and Randy to the department store where Santa (Jeff Gillen
) sits atop a frosty mountain, a long line of kids on one side and a slide going down on the other. Ralphie's parents let him take Randy while they go off on their own. Stuck at the end of a very long line, and with a Santa enthusiast nicknamed Goggles (David Svoboda
) to awkwardly content with, Ralphie can only wonder if he'll make it to see Santa before closing time. When they finally make it to the top, Goggles sits on Santa's lap and immediately starts screaming before being put on the slide. Randy follows suit and Ralphie is escorted by an irritable helper elf (Patty Johnson
) to sit on Santa's lap. His perspective, as he's swung around, shows clearly why most kids are afraid of Santa. In shock himself by Santa's intimindating face, Ralphie is unable to tell Santa exactly what he wants. Santa suggests a football to which Ralphie numbly agrees. He comes to his senses just as he's about to go down the slide and stops himself, struggling back to the top where he blurts out what he really wants. He gives his best smile, but Santa merely repeats what Ralphie fears, "you'll shoot your eye out, kid" before putting his boot to Ralphie's forehead and pushing him down the slide. Ralphie's parents collect him and Randy at the bottom and take them home where they decorate the tree (a task that results in blowing a dangerously packed outlet). The boys are then ushered quickly up the stairs to bed.
The next morning, Ralphie wakes up to see that fresh snow has fallen overnight and goes downstairs eagerly with his brother, who claims that everything in sight is his. Their parents follow suit and presents are unwrapped with frantic excitement (except for socks). When all is said and done, Randy lies sleeping amid the wrappings with his toy zeppelin as Ralphie sits on the couch with his parents. His father asks if he got everything he wanted that year before pointing out a mysterious package behind the desk. Ralphie goes to unwrap it and finds what he thought he'd never get; the Red Ryder BB gun. His father chuckles as he fills it with BB pellets and asks to try it out. Mr. Parker explains to his wife that he had one when he was eight years old, though she still worries Ralphie will hurt himself. Ralphie runs outside and sets up his metal target board while his father drools over the Christmas turkey his mother is making.
Ralphie takes aim, fires, and falls back; the pellet having bounced off the target and hitting him on the cheek, knocking his glasses off. Fearful for a second that he actually did shoot his eye out, the half-blind Ralphie collects himself and looks for his glasses but accidentally steps on them, breaking them. Despondent, he tries to think of a way to explain the accident to his mother and decides that an icicle falling off the garage would have to work. He fakes some tears and goes to his mother. She takes him to the bathroom upstairs to wash his face off (though Ralphie is ecstatic that his plan worked) and gives him an old pair of glasses to use.
Meanwhile, the Bumpuses' street bloodhounds get into the house and run rampant through the kitchen, eating all of the turkey. Mr. Parker chases the dogs out, yelling at the top of his lungs, before announcing to everyone that they're going out to eat. They go to a Chinese restaurant where the family listens to the waiters' attempts to sing carols before the main course is brought out, with its head still intact. The owner (John Wong
) casually takes out a butcher knife and chops the head off while the family claps and begin to eat.
That night, Ralphie sleeps with his Red Ryder held close, the best Christmas gift he ever received, dreaming of hunting ducks and making spectacular shots.