For many, the best part of Christmas is watching the same beloved holiday movies over and over again. In turn, we’re paying tribute to our favorites by breaking down everything that makes them annual must-watches, from our favorite characters and moments, to all the ways they celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. In this Classic Christmas Movie Breakdown, we’re looking at a less traditional holiday tale that explores all the ways the holiday and our family can drive us nuts, 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Most classic Christmas movies celebrate the magic and wonder of the season. They are sweet stories about the perils of commercialism, the value of friendship and family, and spreading joy and goodwill to others. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is not your typical Christmas classic. Clark Griswold would love nothing more than to host the most perfect Christmas ever. Unfortunately the holiday itself keeps getting in the way of making that dream come true. As does his family. It might not be fun for him to experience one disaster after another, but it sure is funny to watch. And beneath all of the comedy and terrors lies a film that still has its heart in the right place.
St. Nick appears in a fun animated short during the opening credits where everything goes wrong for Santa while he tries to deliver the Griswold family’s gifts. It’s a clever way to set the tone for the film. But otherwise no.
No, but Uncle Lewis’s toupée feels like it’s going to come alive at any moment.
Are there any religious components?
At the beginning, Clark and his wife Ellen briefly sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” but that’s as close as the film ever gets to anything religious.
How lovable is the main character?
It’s doubtful anyone would ever describe Clark Griswold as being super lovable, but he definitely means well, and that makes him someone worth rooting for. Sure, he has a tendency to set impossible expectations for everything in life, which drives his family nuts, and yes he can go completely insane and take out a chainsaw, but all he wants for his loved ones is to create a magical holiday experience that ends with the gift of a swimming pool.
And how can we not be on Clark’s side when the Griswold clan is driving him insane? We all know what it’s like to deal with irritating family members, bad neighbors, and Christmas lights that won’t work. We’re not always at our best during difficult holiday seasons, and we’re nowhere near as patient as Clark is. Well, that is until he gets his “bonus” and snaps. Then he really speaks for all of us at the end of a difficult year.
There really isn’t a major villain. Clark’s cheapo boss is a selfish jerk who treats his employees like crap, but he’s a minor character who immediately sees the error of his ways after he realizes how much he’s hurt the Griswolds. Clark’s father-in-law isn’t exactly the kindest person in the world, but in fairness to him, Clark is a putz. It’s also impossible to hate cousin Eddie even though he’s a walking disaster.
Clark’s refusal to be cynical even as one thing after another goes wrong keeps the film’s general spirit bright. When Clark finally loses it at the “threshold of hell,” Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss to cheer him up, which accidentally leads to Clark getting his Christmas bonus after all. Despite everything, the day is saved and the family gets to enjoy the moment together. It’s a happy ending without anyone pressing any charges.Even though the movie presents all of the ways Christmas can destroy our soul, it still loves what it can mean. Just remember Jack Daniels and egg nog can really help.
What are the biggest Christmas themes?
The biggest theme is obviously family. Not so much that you have to love them or treasure them, but that you often have to tolerate them. That’s about as honest as any Christmas movie ever. It’s not all negative, though. The movie does suggest it’s easier to tolerate family if you focus on their best qualities rather than their worst. The other important theme is the idea of expectations versus reality, which on the surface might not seem obviously Christmas-y.
However, there are always expectations for what a “traditional” Christmas means. We “know” we’re supposed to buy gifts, hang lights, get a big tree, and have a feast with our family. Whether we like them or not. Society has built a lot of stress into the holiday, which is what Clark falls victim to. Rather than just relax and enjoy the spirit of the season, he tries to reach an impossible ideal of what it should be. It’s like any Christmas movie that tells us not to worry about the gifts we get. Instead we should focus on giving to others.
In the same vein, Christmas Vacation reminds us to not forget to enjoy what the holiday is truly about because you’re trying to live up to some silly, meaningless standard.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation really does have some really meaningful ideas! Shouldn’t be that surprising though. It was written by John Hughes.
The film has a number of memorable moments we could choose. In addition to Eddie’s sewage dump, there’s Clark’s super sonic sled ride, as well as when he opens up the family tree in the living room. The scene where he gets locked in the attic kills us. We’re also tempted to give it to the squirrel jumping out of the new tree, because it sets off an amazing, destructive slapstick routine. However, we’re ultimately going with the moment when the outside lights finally go on. Then they go off, then on, then off, then on again, much to the misfortune of neighbors Todd and Margo. Because as the movie reminds us constantly, there is no joy without pain.
There’s a genuinely beautiful moment with Clark and Ruby Sue, the young daughter of Eddie. She finds Clark in the kitchen fantasizing about a beautiful department store clerk skinny dipping in his future pool (but, uh, we swear it’s still a very sweet scene). She asks him if he’s Santa because being in his home has been a gift unto itself. Especially after she didn’t get any presents last year. He says no he’s not, but he does end up playing Santa for her and her brother anyway. It’s a tender moment and in the best spirit of the season, but done in true National Lampoon style because this is how their conversation starts.
When you can be sentimental and make us laugh all at the same time you’ve given us a reason to take the same Christmas Vacation every holiday season.
Images: Warner Bros.