Christmas Vacation: A Different Kind of Christmas Movie
Christmas Vacation is a 1989 Christmas comedy. It was the second sequel to the National Lampoon’s Vacation movie.[i] This meant when Christmas Vacation opened in theaters many people knew about the Griswold family. The movie was a box office success and has since become a Christmas classic. Although it is a sequel Christmas Vacation is a good stand alone movie. Some things set Christmas Vacation apart from other Christmas movies. This article contains spoilers.
[i] The first sequel was National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
Why it is different
Christmas Vacation is not a children’s movie. It has a PG-13 rating. On television the foul language and some mature images are usually edited out. An interesting television edit is when Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) asks his father (John Randolph) how he got through Christmas his father tells him, “I had a lot of help.” The phrase “from Jack Daniels” is deleted which changes the meaning of the replay and removes the joke’s punch line.
The only fantasy in the movie is in the opening title sequence. The title sequence is an animation scene where a luckless Santa Clause stops at the Griswold house and has a series of misfortunes. The movie’s focus isn’t children. The focus is Clark Griswold’s attempt to have a fun old fashioned family Christmas. The Griswold children, Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki), are of the age where it isn’t fun to do anything with the parents. The children in the movie are good children. They mildly protest the injustices heaped on them by their parents. The children don’t resort to mischief. Clark Griswold, Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), and Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) cause enough mayhem. Christmas comedies tend to turn schmaltzy after the climax and the schmaltzy note seems to run too long. In Christmas Vacation the movie ended right on time and the animated Christmas lights on “THE END” burning out finished the movie on a comedic note.
The Story Arc
The story begins with the Griswold family driving on an icy country road. Clark and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) are singing Christmas Carols and the children are bored in the back. Clark explains in glowing terms how this marks the beginning of the Griswold fun old fashioned family Christmas. They are going to a tree farm to chop down their Christmas tree. Soon there is trouble from the outside. Clark escalates the situation and almost gets his family killed in the process. He damages some property and continues on his quest for the Christmas tree. His moment of success is soon dashed because of an oversight on his part. This sets the pattern for the movie. Sometimes trouble comes from outside sources and other times trouble comes from Clark’s poor planning. Regardless of the source Clark tends to make a bad situation worse. Just as the situation seems to be going well, or at least the situation is under control, something goes terribly wrong.[i] This culminates with a visit from a police SWAT team instead of Santa Clause. The police converge on the Griswold home to the tune of “Here Comes Santa Clause” sung by Gene Autry.
[i] The all is right then disaster strikes pattern is not unique. A Christmas Story (1983) used a similar pattern.
Clark can’t stand his wife’s cousin Eddie. Cousin Eddie is so dim witted the insults Clark hurls at him go over Eddie’s head. Eddie has no common sense. Eddie is perpetually unemployed. Clark and Eddie are alike in some ways. They both exercise poor judgment. Neither of them can take a hint. They both have doting wives.
Eddie’s wife Catherine (Miriam Flynn) is a cheerfully submissive to her husband. Ellen sometimes gently, considering the circumstances, criticizes Clark but she goes along with whatever Clark wants to do. The movie doesn’t show how Catherine behaves toward Eddie when they are alone. Before the movie began Clark put down a $7,500 deposit for the construction of an in ground swimming pool. This put the family in debt. He lets his wife, and the rest of the family, know about the swimming pool when he unilaterally announced if there was enough left in his bonus he would fly them all in for a visit after the pool is completed. It is difficult to think of a wife being so submissive to her husband. The wives who weren’t submissive were Mrs. Shirley (Natalija Nogulich), the boss’s wife and Margo Chester (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the next door neighbor.
Todd (Nicholas guest) and Margo Chester and Clark don’t get along. The Chester’s are a young couple with no children. They were apparently planning a romantic Christmas for two at home. Clark’s antics caused 4 instances of property damage to the Chester’s house and an animal attack on Margo inside of 10 days. With Clark having an in ground swimming pool put in angering The Chester’s would not end anytime soon.
Clark’s one area of competence is his job. He also seems to get along well with at least one of his coworkers. Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle-Murray), Clark’s employer, has little respect for his employees. Clark fawns over Mr. Shirley about the corporate Christmas card he received. Clark openly insults members of Mr. Shirley’s entourage. He gives a Christmas gift to Mr. Shirley, an obvious attempt to get recognition. The box for Clark’s gift looks exactly like the boxes the other employees gave to Mr. Shirley. The only difference is the wrapping paper. If Clark wasn’t satisfied with how Frank Shirley was treating or compensating him Clark could seek out other employment opportunities.
Clark is furious when he learns he wouldn’t get a Christmas bonus. He makes disparaging comments about Frank Shirley living with all the rich people. A couple of minutes earlier a delivery boy (Keith MacKechnie) delivered an envelope which Clark believed to be a check for thousands of dollars. He slammed the door on the delivery boy without giving him a tip. The other person he encountered doing her job was Mary the sales representative (Nicolette Scorsese). The encounter consisted of crude Freudian slips on his part and his turning everything they said into a double entendre. Mary was friendly and professional despite Clark’s rude behavior. This is another thing that sets Christmas Vacation apart from other Christmas movies. While Clark has some good characteristics the movie’s main protagonist is not a nice person.
Clark’s triumphant “I did it” at the end shows he didn’t learn anything. Lessons the audience can learn are:
- It’s natural to have an image of what will happen during an upcoming holiday or vacation. It’s almost impossible for an event to unfold as someone imagines it will.
- Trying to match your imagination with reality is likely to cause frustration. This will probably magnify a small inconvenience into something very upsetting. This minor inconvenience can snowball into something that will ruin your vacation.
- It is possible to over plan an event.
- Ages are a factor. Had Clark planned his fun old fashioned family Christmas a couple of years earlier his children would have been enthusiastic about his plans and his elderly relatives would have been able to enjoy and add to the celebration.