National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has been around for 32 years, and during that time, there have been more hot takes on how awful the Griswold clan is than there are real life complaints about Chevy Chase’s very real life misconduct. Coming up on our third year of a global pandemic — making this the second Christmas in lockdown for anyone who’s remained sensible — I’m going to say something that might cause a bit of fuss, however: I think that, at this point and for better or worse, we’ve all got a little bit of Clark Griswold in us when it comes to our treatment of holiday festivities, and you know what? That’s entirely reasonable, considering.
Much like it’s early-‘80s predecessors National Lampoon’s Family Vacation and (the thankfully less-talked-about) National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Christmas Vacation follows the follies and foibles of Clark Griswold (Chase) and his family of four, as written by none other than John Hughes of Sixteen Candles and Home Alone success. The trilogy began as an extended riff on one of Hughes’ first contributions to National Lampoon magazine, the 1979 short story “Summer of ’58”; Christmas Vacation is loosely based on that story’s sequel, “Christmas ‘59,” which appeared a year later. Christmas Vacation has a special magic behind it, however, that makes it stand out amongst the series, and one that feels more prevalent than ever amid our second holiday season in lockdown. An energy best described as, “Holy shit, can’t we just have something nice for once? PLEASE?”
Christmas Vacation tells the story of family patriarch Clark Griswold, doing what Clark is wont to do: making grand plans for the perfect holiday with his family, including a freshly-cut tree, happy family members around the table, a beautiful meal, an illuminated house full of wonder and holiday magic, and happy children opening gifts on Christmas morning. More than anything else, however, Clark is looking forward to his Christmas bonus, a lump sum given out annually by his boss to show gratitude and appreciation for all the hard work put in throughout the year for the company.
This isn’t because he’s some crazy miser — this isn’t another riff on A Christmas Carol — but because he can’t wait to add onto the downpayment he’s made in order to install a pool in his family’s backyard, another way in which Clark (bless him) just wants to try and make things nice for other people. But, as anyone who has watched any National Lampoon movie will know, things don’t quite go according to Clark’s plans, and there’s going to be hell to pay for those who end up as the last straw that breaks Clark’s metaphorical back.
If it’s one thing that has stuck out among the throngs of people trying to get by, emotionally as well as physically, in this global pandemic, it’s that we are all just wanting for something good to happen. We go to work — whether that is still at home or back out in the world, mask-laden — and take each day one-by-one, knowing that, at least at the end of year, for most people there will be a small glimmer of hope in a heartfelt time with loved ones, beloved gifts, or the twinkle in kids’ eyes. We collectively pine for the little bits of holiday magic that come with now fully-vaccinated gatherings and the warmth of feeling hope again, and the months between October and December seem, for most folks, ripe with opportunities for that hope to spring eternal and bring us some joy again… even if it’s just for a little bit.
With that joy and reprieve from the everyday doldrums of a pandemic comes a certain need — one that I find myself falling into without ever meaning to — to savor that happiness and make it as perfect as humanly possible: By god, if we’re going to have only one bit of good this year, then it’s going to be the best damn kind of good there is! This is where I, and possibly we as a larger society, are very possibly becoming Griswolds ourselves.
Throughout the film, part of Clark’s appeal is that while he seems entirely self-serving (and, yes, uncomfortably horny for utter strangers rather than wife Ellen played by Beverley D’Angelo — I mean, c’mon), ultimately his goals are all about making his family happy. The opening of the movie sees the whole family schlepped out into the middle of nowhere Illinois to pick out a Christmas tree — not because there are no tree lots available near them, but because Clark is obsessed with making picking out a live tree and cutting it down a family experience and memory to cherish: “We’re kicking off our fun, old-fashioned family Christmas by heading out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols!” he declares, with festive zeal.
This ends up meaning that they hike for a few miles in the snow, where daughter Audrey nearly freezes to death; in the end, it’s discovered Clark has forgotten a saw and has to pull up the tree —roots and all — to get it home… but it’s still a memory! And, to Clark’s mind, one that still involved him and his family finding the perfect (albeit much too big, as we find out later) “real” tree together.
The image of the perfect Christmas is strong throughout the movie, with Chevy Chase gamely playing up the idea of nostalgia as something of a drug — as evidenced when Clark finds himself locked in the freezing attic, a problem that he once again tries to turn into a positive family moment by digging up old film reels of Christmas’ past from his own childhood. Wrapped in whatever stored stoles and opera gloves he managed to find, the desire for the perfect holiday with the people he loves becomes practically a tear-inducing need against the dulcet tones of Ray Charles’ “The Spirit of Christmas”. Fittingly, Clark’s foot goes through the ceiling and ends up falling backwards through the attic stairwell.
The theme of great effort for little reward carries forward to the Christmas lights on the Griswold house, as well. After welcoming the grandparents into the house and dealing with the joys of family-gathering apathy and over-sharing horrors — particularly the hillbilly joys of everybody’s favorite Cousin Eddie, played by everyone’s least favorite, Randy Quaid — Clark sets out on the outside of their split-level Chicago home with the intent to cover every inch of the vinyl siding with bright, blazing white lights. After failed attempt after failed attempt of getting them perfect (involving falling off the roof twice, changing countless bulbs, and ultimately trying to make sure that all 25 thousand lights are set just right) and twice frantically inviting the entire family out into the cold to see, the lights finally come blazing forth, burning out the retinas of the next door neighbors and shutting down the power for the greater Chicago area for a few minutes.
The final act of the movie sees it make the turn the audience has been expecting, and everything rolls back downhill. When it’s not Cousin Eddie in his housecoat screaming “Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!” at the neighbors while emptying his RV’s septic tank into a storm drain, then it’s an overcooked, deflated turkey, a burnt down tree, shitty and griping family members, a home invasion by a squirrel, and a roasted cat. Despite all of this, Clark somehow manages to mostly keep his cool, using passive aggressive comments and a desperation for a silent night to guide him through the angst just like the rest of us at the holidays.
However, when his bonus check arrives and isn’t a check at all, but a subscription to the Jelly of The Month Club, all hell breaks loose.
Some think that the kidnapping of Clark’s boss by Uncle Eddie is the finale moment of Christmas Vacation, but to someone who has just been trying to get by and making something nice of it all this year, I feel as if the conclusion truly arrives when Clark entirely snaps over the lack of an actual bonus check, with loving wife Ellen trying to make life easier by ushering everyone out the door to go home, saying that maybe it would be best if everybody just went home before things get any worse.
“Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving,” Clark exclaims with the famed crazy look in his eye. “We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here! We’re gonna press on and we’re going to have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye! And when Santa squeezes his fat ass down that chimney, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse!”
That may seem like it’s blown out of proportion, and it is. It’s a movie, and it’s a comedy movie at that. But when it comes to the end of year during the years that we’ve had recently, is it so bad to want the very best for those around you? Who among us doesn’t find ourselves a little short-tempered when, after a summer of heat-waves, part of the string of lights that you strung up so beautifully just won’t work? Or when you finally get to spend time with vaccinated family members again after a lonely 2020 Christmas, and the turkey leaves less than desired?
Sure, there are better ways to cope with these feelings than simply exploding with frustration — and those are all things we’ve managed to make time for in the pandemic lockdown as well — but there’s something to be said for the understanding of just wanting that one big win: that one bonus check that felt guaranteed enough for us to count on, or the reassurance that we could provide something nice for ourselves and our families.
Ultimately, there may not be anything really new to say about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The film celebrated its 30th anniversary a couple of years ago, nearly everyone in the Western world has seen it, and a cursory Google search brings up countless articles on the pros and cons and little-known-facts about the slapstick classic, so I won’t bother you with the idea that there’s new critical commentary to be found on the festive foibles of the Griswold clan. I can tell you one thing, though: if you find yourself flipping your lid because, goddamnit, you deserved this one good thing to happen at the end of the year — no matter how small — then that’s okay. Maybe feeling a little bit like Clark Griswold actually comes from a good, selfless, place, deep down.
After all, at the end of the worst holiday we’ve endured, at least we can all gather around listening to the Star Spangled Banner, and watching Santa shoot into the sky on a shit-powered rocket.
Have a very merry Christmas!