National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation breaks almost every one of my rules for Christmas movies – it glorifies consumerism (the climactic emotional disappointment comes when Clark Griswold discovers he won’t be able to buy his family a swimming pool), it’s crass (“Where are you going to put that?” Clark’s obnoxious neighbor asks when he sees the giant Griswold Christmas tree in the front yard. “Bend over and I’ll show you,” Clark responds), and the film is populated with caricatures rather than characters (there’s the Hillbilly Brother, the Mean Boss, the Incompetent Dad and the Snobby Neighbor for starters). But the film is redeemed by two characteristics: it’s funny as all getout, and Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is so earnest in his desire for a classic family holiday with the people he loves that the movie manages to be endearing on the strength of our sympathy for him.
Because everything he does to achieve this end fails spectacularly.
The movie opens with the Griswolds in their station wagon on the way to cut down a Christmas tree. They end up going off the road and getting stuck in a snowbank. When they find a tree, they have no saw, and end up with the entire tree, roots and all (don’t worry about this being impossible) strapped to the top of the car. Clark shatters windows trying to get the tree into the house. Later, the family Christmas tree burns to a crisp when a senile uncle lights cigar too close to it. Clark cuts down a tree in his neighbor’s yard, further angering them. That is one small story arc in a manic look at family get-togethers gone wrong, but it summarizes the entire film. Nothing goes Clark’s way. And since this was made in the 80s, things go awry in the most impossible, absurd ways imaginable.
Clark’s dogged determination to give his family the Christmas they deserve, and to give himself the nostalgic Christmas he remembers from his childhood (examples of which he watches on a video when he gets locked in the attic for an entire day), reminds us of every failed attempt at perfection we’ve ever taken a swing at and missed. We have all planned parties, dates, vacations and visits that have failed to meet our expectations, and we’ve all had to learn that perfection is not the point – love and acceptance matter more than our rose-tinted idyllic images. People are the point, not perfection.