If you're a Christmas holdout, a true believer who still hears reindeer on the roof, and even on an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve holds out hope of waking to a yard full of snow and branches coated like velvet antlers, then "A Christmas Story" is for you.

It's a heart-warming pastiche of snowflakes, Christmas lights strung across city streets, children's noses pressed against toy- store windows and one little boy's quest for the present of his dreams, a Genuine Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, with a Shock-Proof High-Adventure Combination Trail Compass and Sundial Set Right in the Stock.

Peter Billingsley plays the all-American protagonist, Ralphie Parker, a delightful little Everykid created by American humorist Jean Shepherd in his best-selling novel "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

Unbelievably, Bob Clark, who perpetrated "Porky's," is the creator of this sweet story -- the director, coproducer and cowriter of the screenplay! Rarely has there been a film so suited to general audiences.

It's a nostalgic comedy featuring a family of eccentrics who lovingly celebrate the holidays and life itself in Midwestern America in the 1940s. They're like an early-TV comedy family, except more whimsical and real. Melinda Dillon plays the Mom of Moms who's always dishing out seconds and hasn't had a hot meal herself in 15 years. Darren McGavin plays The Old Man, perpetually battling the furnace and the Oldsmobile and the neighboring Bumpus' hound dogs -- 785 by Ralphie's count. Ian Petrella plays baby brother Randy, whom Mom stuffs into a snowsuit and muffler till he looks like a "tick about to explode."

Much of the action is narrated by Shepherd in his own incomparable prose. It works wonderfully, with everyone emoting madly, having perhaps the most fun any actors have had since vaudeville. McGavin is wildly idiosyncratic, Dillon is moving and sensitive, and Billingsley, the kidcaster on TV's "Real People," proves he's a talented actor, too.

Everywhere Ralphie turns, from his mother to his teacher to Santa, the answer's the same: "No. You'll only shoot your eye out." The classic mother/BB-gun bloc, offers the narrator.

The sound of it is Golden Age radio, the look of it like something out of a frayed Saturday Evening Post. There are the inevitable bullies to conquer, the dares to be doubled and dogged, too, and the Christmas tree to be bought and trimmed. And soap to wash out your mouth for saying the "queen mother" of dirty words.

Oh, there's no doubt about it, Clark is manipulating his audience right down to those "Jingle Bells," but only an unreformed Scrooge would hate him for it. "A Christmas Story" is a joy to the world, right down to the moment Mom slips downstairs to unplug the tree lights. A CHRISTMAS STORY -- At area theaters.