And that’s what sets Christmas Vacation apart from not only the rest of the Christmas canon: that Clark’s intentions to have a happy, peaceful and joyous Christmas with his wife, kids, parents, in-laws and decrepit aunt and uncle are futile ones. What he gets instead is a cat wrapped up like a Christmas present, a shitty boss who gives him a Jelly of the Month Club subscription instead of an actual bonus, yuppie neighbors, several near-death experiences and, most importantly, Cousin Eddie and his kin showing up in their RV.
It’s not just Clark’s best-laid plans that are blown up, but also his sanity. And if you’ve ever spent an inordinate amount of time with your own family during the holidays, you can probably sympathize with his plight. People yell, they fight, things break … nothing ever goes according to plan.
The Griswold family version of this is, of course, exaggerated by orders of magnitude. Ultimately, what makes the film that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year so iconic aren’t the great lewks or the Marty Moose glass eggnog mugs — it’s Clark’s inevitable blow-up. It’s him yelling “We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse” like a demented Custer leading his troops into a battle they surely won’t survive.
But they do. In true Christmas-movie fashion, everything turns out OK in the end. Clark gets his bonus, his boss doesn’t press charges after Cousin Eddie kidnaps him, and everybody survives.
Beyond all the chaos, Christmas Vacation gives us an honest look at how combustible things can be during the holidays. It’s about the lengths we’ll go to in order to have the “perfect” holiday, and how unrealistic those expectations are. It’s still got enough of that old National Lampoon cynicism, but it’s glossed over with a particular end-of-the-1980s sheen. Up until that point, we’d seen it all before; we knew that everything would be a little painful and hectic, but we also knew things would eventually be alright. Our lives would go back to normal, and then we’d probably do it all over again a year later.
That’s what makes National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation the first and last film of its kind. The last great Christmas movie of the 1980s came out of the National Lampoon of the 1970s and laid the foundation for a new breed of holiday saga. And three decades later, it has become one of the all-time great Christmas movies. Time hasn’t worn down the movie’s funniest parts, but it also feels almost sweet, a little more innocent. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation made it OK to slaughter some sacred cows on the white snow next to the plastic Santa and took the air out of the myth of the perfect family Christmas, but still delivered a final note of of togetherness. It’s not a perfect Christmas film, and that’s really the point: nothing is perfect. It’s almost always certainly far from it, and nobody could pull that out of the holiday quite like Clark Griswold.