Most people have a favourite Christmas movie. Old school film fans will try to convince you that nothing comes close to the tear-jerking majesty of Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Friends with kids tell me that Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (actually Henry Selick’s, but Tim’s the guy with his name in the title) is their regular Yuletide pleasure. And people who like their seasonal cheer with a side-order of high-calibre bullet wounds tend to plump for a Die Hard/Lethal Weapon double bill.
But in my house, there’s only one movie that gets watched every Christmas without fail. In fact, I may have watched it more times than any other movie in my collection – which fills me with no small amount of shame. But to be honest, I can’t imagine spending the holidays with anyone other than the Griswold family.
Originally released in 1989, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was the third in a loosely connected series of films about the misadventures of Chicago-based Clark W Griswold and his long-suffering family. It’s also remembered as something of a turning point in the career of writer John Hughes, as he moved away from the broad comedy of his earlier work, to the more schmaltzy, family-friendly fare that typified his 90s output. Although he followed it up a year later with the more successful Home Alone, it’s the misadventures of the world’s favourite inventor of non-nutritive cereal varnish that fill me with Christmas cheer. So here are ten reasons why Christmas Vacation is my pick as the ultimate festive film:
1. For some reason best known to a generation of coke-addled studio executives, the eighties were awash with incongruous animated title sequences. Despite following such undisputed classics as Mannequin and Troop Beverly Hills, Christmas Vacation manages to hold its own, thanks to a charmingly designed cartoon short showing that even St Nick can fuck up. It helps enormously that Santa’s blight before Christmas is accompanied by one of the best theme songs of the last thirty years. Performed by the legendary Mavis Staples, Christmas Vacation sticks in your brain like a particularly aggressive tumour.
2. Neither of Clark and Ellen’s kids escape unscathed from their family holidays, but Hughes tended to save the serious injuries for petulant daughter Audrey. Having marched his clan through waist-deep snow in search of the perfect tree, Clark is convinced he’s finally found it. But as he implores the kids to marvel in its beauty, Audrey remains unresponsive. Ellen whispers tenderly, “She’ll see it later honey, her eyes are frozen.”
I may have watched it more times than any other movie in my collection – which fills me with no small amount of shame. But to be honest, I can’t imagine spending the holidays with anyone other than the Griswold family.
3. When Hughes wrote Home Alone in 1990, he left behind his love of believable dialogue and witty dialogue, and replaced it with scene after scene of Joe Pesci being smashed in the face with an iron. He clearly used Christmas Vacation as a testing ground for this PG-friendly slapstick, but chose his moments wisely. It also helped that he had, in Chevy Chase, a comedian as confident with physical humour as he was with the wordplay. In particular, Chase’s repeated encounters with ladders are the standout moments, particularly the scene where Clark attempts to hide his presents in the roof-space. The sudden appearance of the attic ladder is short, swift and brutal. It’s also fucking funny.
4. Randy Quaid may now be best known for trying to avoid prosecution for residential burglary by seeking asylum in Canada, but I prefer to remember his glory days as Cousin Eddie in the Vacation movies. The undisputed king of boorish, redneck morons, Eddie secures his place in film history, clad in a dog-eared dressing gown and emptying his chemical toilet in Clark’s driveway, shouting “Merry Christmas - Shitter’s full!”
5. Clark may get the Christmas tree he’s always dreamed of, but it’s not without its problems. For a start, the straining branches end up being released with such force that half the living room windows get blown out. But this pine-scented outburst also leaves Clark drenched in sap, which leads to another stand-out moment of physical comedy. Anyone who’s ever struggled to wash real pine sap off their hands will empathise as our sticky hero finds himself attached to a magazine, his wife’s hair and, finally, a table lamp. Again, it’s Chase’s straight-faced sincerity that really sells the silliness.
6. Every neighbourhood has one house that overdoes the Christmas lights, inadvertently triggering air traffic control incidents as passing planes intermittently attempt an impromptu landing in a cul-de-sac. But Clark Griswold’s efforts put most British lighting displays to shame, making the Blackpool Illuminations look like a solitary energy-saving bulb hanging in a halfway house. After much frustrating back-and-forth, trying to get his fairy-lights to come on, Clark’s spectacular arrangement is finally revealed in all its retina-singing glory. The choir sings, the power supply surges and the next door neighbours are temporarily blinded. Clark’s noble efforts have even inspired a dedicated website, a tribute to excellence in exterior illumination.
7. Americans tend to have their big festive meal on Christmas Eve, which is when we see the Griswolds tucking into their giant roast turkey. Unfortunately, Ellen’s sister Katherine has taken charge of the bird, and is a little concerned that she may have left it in the oven too long. It looks golden and delicious, worthy of pride-of-place positioning in a lavish Dickens adaptation, but as Clark pierces its skin with the fork, the whole thing bursts open like Norris’ chest in The Thing. A foul belch of smoke clears to reveal a dry cavity where the meat should be. I’m usually still laughing as the camera takes a slow pan around the dining table to see the extended family crunching their way through an inedible pile of turkey scratchings.
The film has become a holiday favourite because it manages to genuinely capture both the magic and misery of a family Christmas.
8. With family strife taking up most of the film, there’s not much room for cameos or supporting roles. But Bill Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle Murray, scores major points for his performance as Clark’s gruff, impersonable boss. He’s indifferent to the feelings of his employees, choosing to cancel their annual bonus and replace it with a one-year membership to the Jellies of the Month club. Just so you know, that’s a real thing that people give as gifts, entitling the lucky recipient to a new jar of preserves every four weeks. Admit it, you’d be pissed off too. Murray’s finest moment is when he tries to avoid having a conversation with Clark, explaining that he’s in the middle of a very important call, before picking up the phone and barking “Get me someone… and get me someone while I’m waiting.”
9. One of the trademarks of the Vacation series is the moment when Clark finally uncorks the rage that’s been building with every ill-conceived misstep. Venting his spleen in a profane outburst of anger, Clark makes his boss, and the afore-mentioned Jelly Of The Month Club voucher, the focus of his ire: "Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I'd like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey shit he is! Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol?"
10. For all its broad slapstick and even broader characterisation, the film has become a holiday favourite because it manages to genuinely capture both the magic and misery of a family Christmas. Based on a short story Hughes wrote about his own childhood Christmas, it manages to feel believable and sincere, even as Clark rockets down a hillside on a sledge polished with industrial strength cooking oil. The truth at the heart of the film, is that Christmas is a time for unreasonable expectations, nostalgic reminiscences and the dawning realisation that nothing is ever as good as we remember it. More importantly, the family may irritate the shit out of each other, but they manage to love each other regardless, just like the real thing.
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