‘Christmas Vacation’ reminds me what I hate about the holidays

'Christmas Vacation'
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

And I’m happier for it.

'Christmas Vacation'
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Zach Landau | Editor-in-Chief


Like most good Christian, American families, the Landau clan has its own holiday traditions that we have ritualistically followed for nearly 25 years now.

Between the last-minute shopping spree for friends and the cook-off for the Christmas feast, the one ceremony that never fails to get yours truly in the holiday mood is our Christmas-movie marathon.

Every Dec. 24, we gather around the tube, and instead of watching the classics that every other normal, high-functioning family does, we watch the same sacrilegious movie every year: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

And it was this year’s viewing that many of the reasons why we — and hundreds of other weirdos who reaffirm the irreverent classic as timeless — commit ourselves to seeing it through annually became apparent to me.

Frustrated with the hours put into cleaning, cooking and then cleaning again, and exhausted from the endless decorating, shopping and wrapping, I sat languished next to my family this past Christmas Eve, laughing at the same jokes we have heard countless times and quoting our favorite parts verbatim. Clark Griswold’s seemingly-disastrous attempts to recreate the Christmas experience for his family felt all-at-once visceral and surreal. I wondered briefly how my mother, my family’s coordinator for our own holiday affairs, didn’t cry with sympathetic anguish at every misstep Chevy Chase’s character faces.

Obviously, the idea that the charm of Christmas Vacation is its ability to invite invidious comparisons with the audience is nothing new or innovative. For most comedies, that’s their bread and butter. What separates this movie from the pack of its kin, however, is its unapologetic honesty.

Said honesty — which laces everything from the acting to staging, dialogue and mise-en-scène — more than anything makes Christmas Vacation relatable. Touches of genuine humanity sprinkle every scene, and the little nods and winks left throughout the film not only create a real world for the characters to operate in, but invite the audience to join in their misfortune.

And that makes Christmas Vacation so very watchable. The movie would only be regarded as mediocre if it relied solely on its big, marquee scenarios to carry the comedy. The small things — like the way Catherine holds Rusty after scaring the squirrel, Clark fumbling with the staple gun and creating an anarchic mess of the wires on his house’s facade or the crass Walley World mugs of eggnog irreverently dipped into a fountain of creamy goodness — stand out as immensely personal and reliably make the movie real.

The sincerity of the exasperated, relatable, “Before things get worse,” that Ellen lets out sets up the oft-quoted line from Clark: “Worse? How could things get any worse? Take a look around here, Ellen. We’re at the threshold of hell.”

Quite frequently, especially as my siblings and I grow older, we notice more and more the closeness we get to that threshold, how often our family, and many others, ride the line between operational and bedlam.

This year especially, I pondered what our family would look like if we were filmed in much the same way as the Griswolds. Would we laugh at our own misery, at our own roadblocks on the way to that Christmas ideal promised in our shared collective memory? Would dropping the family china elicit peals of laughter? Or would it be the dog eating the Christmas dinner off the counter that brings tears of joy to our eyes? What of the cat knocking over the tree?

I would be remiss to say the appeal of Christmas Vacation is the schadenfreude felt in watching another’s holiday go up in flames. Quite the opposite, the film is a messy mirror of our own trials and tribulations to achieve what is, admittedly, nothing that important. As the film’s own thesis is inelegantly stated, it’s not about the presents or dinners or trees, but something … else.

It’s never stated explicitly, but in this humble reviewer’s opinion, that something else is inexorably the misery and heartache that goes into collecting the family for a festive menagerie. The film never turns away from the uncomfortable and unfortunate struggles that plague any family gathering, and the fact that the audience never actually sees Christmas day underlines this point.

Who actually cares about Christmas? To the vast majority of people, it’s no different than any other day of the year, and without the month of self-flagellation leading up to its coming and going, the holiday would be no different than the rest. Perhaps more than any other movie that I know of, however, Christmas Vacation zeroes in on the aforementioned promise of family tradition and delights in reminding its audience of the agonizing nonsense that goes into making that promise a reality.

Or, to sum up this lengthy, rambling article: Christmas isn’t special in spite of the misery put into it, but because of it.

Like its predecessor, Christmas Vacation effectually satirizes the hope of a family-oriented extravaganza, and it does so well that 24 years after my family’s inaugural viewing, the film still remains a staple in our holiday rotation. Its importance cannot be understated, as the unapologetic and honest look at how tragic and miserable the holidays fundamentally are is often forgotten in favor of repentant tales of saccharine lies.

The holidays suck, so happy holidays.