The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors and eating the stale chocolate lurking behind them. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: holiday classics, old and new.
A fundamental disparity threatens any family get-together during the holiday season: the gap between the way we believe these events should go, and the way they actually go. The pressure to live up to some ideal of stress-free family bonding tends to make ostensibly joyful situations fraught, and people’s inability to tolerate what should be natural—our families—feels like failure. Couple that with the personal stocktaking common to this time of year, and the results can be disastrous.
Disaster had awaited Clark Griswold’s family trips in the two preceding Vacation films, but it’s not a fear of the outside world that compels him to stay home in 1989’s Christmas Vacation. “All my life, I’ve wanted to have a big, family Christmas,” he tells his dubious wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) early in the film. She’s worried about hosting their argumentative parents, but Clark (Chevy Chase) counters, “Christmas is about resolving differences and seeing through the petty problems of family life.” Those are the words of “the last true family man,” as one of Clark’s co-workers calls him, a guy who isn’t staying home for Christmas because he’s cheap or wants to avoid travel hassles, but because he deeply believes in the magic of the Christmas season. Where else would he rather be?
And to make Christmas extra special, he’s going all out: He’s traveling deep into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree. He’s putting 25,000 lights on his house. He’s spending his entire expected Christmas bonus on a swimming pool. Ellen sees trouble: “It’s just that I know how you build things up in your mind. You set standards that no family can ever live up to.” When Clark asks when he’s done that, she rattles off a damning list: “Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays, vacations, graduations.” Later, when Clark begins his insane Christmas-light project, his son Russ (Johnny Galecki), echoes his mom’s concerns. “Think you might be overdoing it here, Dad?” “Russ, when was the last time I overdid anything?”
That’s how some people get through the holidays: by sheer force of will. Clark thinks he can compel everything to be perfect; if he pushes hard enough, they won’t be able to resist the joy he’s spreading/foisting upon them. Late in the film, when everything has gone to utter shit, his good-hearted enthusiasm calcifies into festive fascism:
“No one’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no! We’re all in this together! This is a full-blown four-alarm holiday emergency here! We’re going to press on, and we’re going to have the hap, hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fuckin’ Kaye! And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s going to find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nut house.”
His exasperation is understandable, if unsettling for his family. A continual series of catastrophes has plagued his old-fashioned family Christmas, with a sucker punch following each perfect moment: When he unveils his giant Christmas tree at home, it breaks some of his windows. An impromptu lighting ceremony for his display collapses when the lights don’t work (and when he finally gets them to work, his low-class cousin-in-law Eddie shows up). When everyone’s at the big table for Christmas Eve dinner and Clark gazes upon the scene serenely, the gorgeous-looking turkey splits open to reveal a desiccated mess.
When a company messenger finally drops of Clark’s much-needed Christmas bonus, it turns out to be a membership to the “jelly of the month” club. (“Clark, that’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year,” says Cousin Eddie.) When Clark’s boss, who’s been kidnapped by Eddie, agrees to reinstate (and add to) his Christmas bonus, a team of heavily armed police officers crashes through windows and doors. Even after all of that settles, and the Griswold crew, their extended family, and the authorities take a moment to gaze at what Clark presumes is the Christmas Star, the solemnity is punctured by an explosion.
Christmas Vacation seems to reward any sentiment with punishment, which probably struck some as cynical when the film was released in 1989. (The same criticism was leveled against the 1988 Bill Murray film Scrooged.) The script was written by ’80s titan John Hughes, based on his short story “Christmas ’59,” and many of the elements from that story made it to the film: the electrocuted pet, the animal in the Christmas tree, the exploding turkey, the feuding grandparents, the police. Not everything is the same: There’s an incredibly offensive character named Xgung Wo, an exchange student that lives with one set of the grandparents. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Hughes film Sixteen Candles had the same character, only named Long Duk Dong, who was somehow less offensive than Xgung Wo. “Your grandma has tord me you are an exerrent base-a-bore pitcher. Maybe pray for the Detroit Rions one day!” goes a typical quote from Wo, who’s described as having “huge beaver teeth.”
Hughes’ story also lacks Christmas Vacation’s heart. All of the Vacation films portray Clark as a devoted family man, but none has the sentiment of Christmas Vacation. Clark makes a few speeches about the importance of family during the film, though they’re often played for laughs (like when the freezing cold during their tree hunt causes him to lisp), but it’s not a big speech that closes the film. Well, there’s a small one before the explosion, but the last shot is of Clark, at peace and happy at last, staring into the sky. He sighs before saying, “I did it.”
It’s not until he stops fighting for what he thinks an old-fashioned family Christmas should be and accepts what a Griswold family Christmas is that he finds what he wants. The message of Christmas Vacation isn’t that sentiment warrants punishment, but that the holidays aren’t the time to force anything. If only everyone’s families could remember that this month.
Tomorrow: A new classic Christmas album from a less than likely source.