Christmas Vacation

This article is part of The Daly Planet Presents: The Twelve Days Of Christmas Movies, a daily series leading up to Christmas Eve 2015.  To see all other entries click here.

Before two days ago, I had never seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I know… What can I say? Even the biggest cinephile still has gaps in their library. The movie was never in my family’s annual holiday film rotation, so I just never got around to seeing it. So when my fellow writers and I sat down last week to decide who was writing what for the Twelve Days of Christmas Movies, I jumped at the opportunity to cover Christmas Vacation. Not only was it a great way to close the gap, but I thought it would be interesting reading about this movie from my perspective. A fresh view on a movie that many of you have probably seen many times over.

So did I like it?

Yes! Christmas Vacation, like most of the Vacation movies (except that one…you know which one I’m talking about) is really funny. It has tons of one-liners that I will now actually understand instead of simply nodding and smiling when used on me. Jelly of the Month Club!? I get it now, my current boss. You were trying to tell me I wasn’t getting a bonus in a clever fun way! That’s awesome!

But I think that there’s another reason why so many of you people watch Christmas Vacation every year, and it has very little to do with how funny the movie is. This is a film about expectations vs reality; a topic that the Vacation series has always chosen to embrace. Clark Griswold always has grande expectations for what a family vacation can and should be, whether it’s to Walley World, Europe, or (sigh) Vegas. These expectations are of course never met because they were far too lofty to begin with. As Clark nobly battles back against this disappointment, he only causes more things to go wrong, which leads to just more disappointment. This snowballs in hilarious ways. Hence, great comedy movie.

This metaphor so perfectly transfers over to the Christmas holiday that I’m surprised it took until the third movie in the series for them to come up with it. Christmas Vacation works not just because it’s an obvious pairing within it’s own series, but because every single one of us has experienced the crushing disappointment of blown holiday expectations.

Why are the holidays so stressful to us? Is it because we have so much to do? Is it because of family interactions? No, Christmas Vacation posits that the reason is because we set ourselves up for failure. The Christmas holiday is one that our culture places so much importance on. The traditions, the gifts, the family; we have so many things that we all consider “essential” parts of the Christmas experience, and we so strongly desire to make each of these things happen. The perfect Christmas tree, the best decorated house, the calm, peaceful family interactions. These are all pressures we put on ourselves, hoping to provide our families with the perfect Christmas, just like the ones we had when we were younger. The root of all Clark Griswold’s problems lie with his continuous efforts to force everyone and everything into this box.

There are two scenes in the film that I believe perfectly illustrate this point. The first is when Clark is inadvertently locked in his own attic. To kill time he starts digging through old boxes until he eventually finds Super 8 films of his childhood family Christmases. Clark watches them and cries, yearning for these wonderful Christmas moments of the past. His face seems to say, if only I could find a way to create these wonderful Christmas moments for my own family.

But you can’t, Clark. Because those moments are just an illusion. This is something that Clark himself admits in a later scene. As his wonderfully laid plans for Christmas explode (literally) around him, Clark confides in his father. He says that he remembers how terrible their Christmases were when he was a kid and how he just wanted to do better. Oh really, Griswold? They were terrible? You mean those Christmases you were nostalgically weeping at not 35 minutes ago?

And that, to me, is the crux of Christmas Vacation. We all build Christmas up to be this huge thing and we stress out and get upset when things go wrong and it isn’t what we expected. But these expectations were never reachable. Christmas is never what you think or want it to be and it’s rarely the happy time you remember as a child. Christmas just is and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation thinks that we’d all have a much happier holiday if we just let ourselves realize that.

So this year, temper your expectations. Relax. Enjoy the holiday time. Be Merry. And don’t write a check you can’t clear in hopes of a big Christmas bonus, because you’ll just end up with jelly on your face.

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