The holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year. From listening to Christmas music and making cookies to seeing loved ones and watching classic movies, it is filled with incredibly joyful moments. But alongside the holiday spirit comes plenty of stress and frustration, and few movies capture this juxtaposition more perfectly than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which is why writer John Hughes’ 1989 classic is the quintessential Christmas movie.
From the very beginning, the film captures the bittersweet nature of the holidays. The Griswolds go on a family trip to get their Christmas tree, but they are woefully ill-equipped. Audrey (Juliette Lewis) freezes until she’s numb. Without having the proper tools, Clark (Chevy Chase) is forced to rip the massive tree out by tying it to the car. Scene after scene, the themes of peaks and valleys are tied into the story.
While spending the holidays with family can be lovely, the Griswolds experience the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) herself puts it best shortly after the in-laws settle in. “I don’t know what to say except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery,” Ellen tells Aubrey. In a variety of ways, the in-laws drive Clark and his family crazy, especially once Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) arrives and threatens to derail Clark’s ambition of an excellent Christmas celebration.
The family drama, just as much as the comedy that lands each and every time, is the true lasting appeal of Christmas Vacation. Seeing Clark deal with the in-laws’ annoying behavior and still trying his darndest to be a good host captures the overarching struggle of the holiday season. Extreme as it may be, hearing Clark jokingly wonder if he can drive Eddie out to the middle of nowhere and leave him for dead still resonates over 30 years after the film’s release. Families drive people to their wits’ end, especially during the inherently stressful holiday season, and seeing Clark’s struggle hits home every time.
Beyond simply focusing on all of this tension, Christmas Vacation cuts through it all with plenty of laugh-out-loud humor. Christmas dinner can often be the height of stress during the holiday season, as it puts everyone around the same table and leaves no room for escape. Of course, one of the best parts of the movie comes when Clark delivers his unforgettable rant after his boss cheaps out on his Christmas bonus. In addition to Clark’s diatribe, he also snaps and says they’re at the “threshold of hell.” Thankfully, after a pep talk with his dad, who reminds him that his actions are impacting the family, Clark sees the error of his ways and shifts course, determined to do what he can to salvage the celebration.
Yes, the movie leans fully into the zany side of comedy when Cousin Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss, leading to a SWAT team storming the house. But alongside this wild climax, Clark realizes what the holiday is all about as he admires what he calls the Christmas Star with his family. Through all the irritation and borderline “misery”, as Ellen said, Clark still pulled off a nice Christmas and got the happy ending, complete with a kiss from his wife, that he was looking for. His triumphant movie-ending line, “I did it”, ties it all together; Clark was pushed to the brink of practical madness, but he managed to persevere. If Clark can get through all of that and reach the other side, surely there must be hope for everyone else.
On the surface, Christmas Vacation is carried by jokes that always land, along with an iconic performance by Chase. But the film’s more profound legacy lies in its depiction of the way the holidays come with plenty of stresses. Most people won’t have to deal with a SWAT team crashing their holiday dinner, but many can surely relate to Clark’s struggles with his annoying in-laws that cause him to lose sight of the meaning of Christmas. These difficulties are validating, just as his ability to overcome them is inspirational.