American values in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Posted by Alain Pierre-Lys on December 16, 2014 · 7 mins read

Seasons Greetings! I’m back again with another holiday classic and this one features significantly fewer explosions… well much less death from explosions.

We can thank Harvard for this next Christmas gem and here’s how. In 1876, the Harvard Lampoon was first published; the Lampoon is a humor and comedy that is still published to this day, they actually still have quite the sense of humor. So 1970 comes around and in true American fashion a spinoff of Harvard’s Lampoon is created: National Lampoon. This magazine has led to the result of some classic American films and the one I’m most concerned with today is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).

Christmas Vacation has standalone appeal but it’s the third installment of the National Lampoon’s Vacation film series. Not to mention that it’s the mother branch of its own “spin-off” with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2, so in total that’s four movies in the series and oh yeah, a short film called Hotel Hell Vacation that was used as a commercial in the 2010 Super Bowl. What I’m trying to get at is, American’s love, and I mean love, a good film series. Like Die Hard in my last holiday movie breakdown, Christmas Vacation packs the punch of a big film series and once again I think I’m ignorant to what may be another holiday “classic”.

Christmas Vacation has its strong points, a good cast, clever writing and some strong performances but I just didn’t think it was enough. To be honest, I’m a little frustrated I didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I was going to! Could all of the recommendations have been wrong? Okay maybe I’m exaggerating. Chevy Chase was a constant source of genuine laughs the whole way through but the movie was 97 minutes and you can’t really be expected to laugh at loose floorboards for 90 of those 97 minutes right? The moments Christmas Vacation wins are the sincere ones, the moments that are funny but make you forget that you were supposed to laugh. It’s clear this is a Christmas comedy but no one ever said it had to be obvious.

The Griswold family is perfect for a Christmas movie. The blundering father, done perfectly by Chevy Chase, drags his family through unfortunate moment after the next but it’s all for a reason. He loves his family and dotes on perfection, which ends up being his fatal flaw. Like I said its fun watching Chevy Chase try to make the perfect Christmas but I think the circumstance is what I truly appreciated about this movie. What’s more American than a dad struggling against the cog that is the holiday season? Clark Griswold might be, as he’s referred to in this movie, the last true family man.

In a way, Christmas is kind of like the NFL post-season and the rest of the year is the regular season. Stay with me, this is going to make sense. A guy like Clark Griswold probably spends his whole year embarrassing his teenage daughter, trying to be a good example for his son and attempting to please his wife. After months and months of mishaps and mistakes the holidays come along and the playoffs begin. The playoff analogy works in two ways, first like real playoffs, once you’re in the playoffs you’re in with a clean slate and second anything that was wrong during the regular season doesn’t matter come playoff time.

Is Christmas not like this for every American family? In Clark’s example if you can take Christmas Vacation as any hint as to what his life is normally like, he’s probably stumbling into the playoffs at 8-8. Much like a real NFL team (I’m going with NFL because…because America duh) Clark knows that a season is long but the playoffs offer new opportunity. He says it himself in the movie, all he wants in a perfect Christmas for his kids (or Superbowl fans).

Now that Clark has made it to the holiday playoffs he knows he needs the one thing that keeps us going during the holidays, no not Gatorade, money. It’s become almost expected that the weeks following thanksgiving are usually spent, being shamed of the things you did on black Friday and working overtime to go out shopping again. Like an NFL coach relies on continuity and consistency, Clark knows with his holiday bonus he’ll be able to afford the pool he’s already put a down payment on and help the rest of his family. If you’re reading between the lines you’re probably noticing something, it seems like Clark is putting all his eggs in one basket. But don’t be surprised kiddies, that’s the holiday Spider Y2 Banana (John Gruden reference, check). This movie almost stresses the fact that the holidays can be dangerous because of all the importance we place in them.

The moment that manages to capture this comes thanks to Uncle Eddie. We’re given “A Christmas Carol” in a span of 15 minutes when Eddie runs to kidnap Frank Shirley after Clark Griswold finally vents his frustrations with his boss. It might have been cheesy for Clark’s boss Frank to give him his holiday bonus and more, or for Uncle Eddie’s kids to be able to see Santa when they thought they’d be receiving no gifts but isn’t that the point of the holidays? Clark’s boss Frank manages to realize this pretty quickly but what if it didn’t work? In a world where movie ending aren’t typical putting all your hopes in Christmas seems crazy, but it happens every year.

Happy endings aren’t necessarily what I’m looking for in a Christmas movie but I think it’s a certain twist on American values. I love seeing effort being put in to Christmas in any way shape or form. It doesn’t have to be as traditional as the Griswold family but this is a pretty good example. Throwing in-laws together, overcoming a scrooge-like boss and some unexpected guests, that’s the holidays…or at least what the movies tell me.

Read more of Alain’s film challenge:

Alain’s Holiday Cheer: A Film Challenge Preview

Die Hard: America’s Greatest Christmas Movie