There is something about preparing for Christmas that just brings out nostalgia, isn’t there? We imagine the weather being just right—chilly enough for a fire with a soft layer of snow, but without the black ice, blizzards, or power outages. We think of the perfect cozy atmosphere at home with everyone getting along, enough money in the bank for just the right gift for everyone, and plenty of time to decorate perfectly and enjoy the fruit of a year’s worth of hard work with a nice glass of eggnog or mulled wine.
But too often, our dreams of Christmas cheer turn into nightmares. Consumerism presses hard upon us from without, and family rancor breaks us down from within. We long for the perfect holiday experience, but we forget that life is often a mess. Indeed, we forget it was precisely to heal our mess that the Lord of glory came to dwell within it.
In the vast canon of classic Christmas movies, perhaps no character better embodies the disconnect between the nostalgic longing and the nerve-wracking reality than Clark W. Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
The word “nostalgia” literally means “homecoming,” but in practice, the home of our longing has never existed. As a husband and father, Clark seeks to build for himself the life he wished he had had as a child—the world he sees only in part when he is stuck in the attic with nothing to entertain him but old home movies. Clark’s nostalgia aims at a noble end; but it also breeds a perfectionism that leaves little room for grace.
Christmas Vacation begins with the combination of lighthearted fun and dark anxiety that runs throughout the film. The Griswold family ventures out into the snowy countryside to cut down their own Christmas tree, as though the season would be somehow inauthentic with a tree from a run-of-the-mill lot, let alone a manufactured plastic item. There is no evidence that the Griswold family are practicing Christians; and yet, Clark cannot help but kick-off his quest for a “traditional family Christmas” with a nod to Christ—the “reason for the season,” as my Christian family used to put it. Clark sings “O Come Let Us Adore Him” in the car, trying in vain to rope his children into singing with him, just as he is disappointed by their complaints about being cold and bored. And of course, Clark forgets the tools required to bring down the tree. Dads everywhere shake their heads in solidarity with Clark at every turn.
Likewise, Clark is a lovable but pathetic Don Quixote figure as he seeks to become the king of exterior Christmas illumination for the Chicago suburbs. When all the lights are arrayed, he summons his family, including his parents and in-laws staying under his roof, to witness the great reveal. He asks for a drum roll and intones “Joy to the World,” another popular hymn with impeccable theology of the incarnation. When power inexplicably fails to surge into his countless Christmas bulbs, Clark goes bananas—a hilarious trope we find in all the Vacation movies. Clark’s angry outburst here is funny precisely because it is so obviously at odds with the ideas of saving grace, eternal peace—and indeed, Christ’s gift of joy—that are supposed to define the Church’s celebration of Christmas. Nowadays I laugh because I see myself in Clark’s overreaction. “Joy to the world” goes right out the window, and I become a functional atheist in the moment. I see red, and things get out of control. How many times have I completely flipped out when I tell myself I’m just trying to do something nice for my family . . . or even for God?
When Clark learns that he will not be getting his normal Christmas bonus and therefore will not be able to pay for the swimming pool he has arranged to have put in, he goes on another tirade, again mixing the sacred with the profane. After reeling off a slew of insults about his boss, he shouts, “Hallelujah,” followed by an expletive, before concluding with “Where’s the Tylenol?” As Clark bottoms out, he realizes he is walking on a tightrope that will just not support the weight of his nostalgic desire. Clark’s father confronts him, reminding him that his own attempts at constructing a traditional family Christmas in the 1950’s were actually fueled by “my good friend Jack Daniels.” Meanwhile, Clark’s cousin-in-law, Eddie, played by Randy Quaid, stands up for Clark in a reckless but endearing way. He kidnaps Clark’s boss, just as Clark had asked during his delirious rant; and no viewer of the film can help but be touched as Clark declares that Eddie’s “heart is bigger than his brain.” Each year, as I watch Christmas Vacation, I wonder to myself: Who loves me so much that they would do something totally irrational to prove it? Who knows the true intentions of my heart, even when I act like a maniac? I can think of a few . . . but only a few.
In the end, failure is the best thing that can happen to Clark. It is only when Clark embraces his limitations and abandons his nostalgia—admitting that for all his striving, he has done more harm than good—that Christmas comes to mean something for him. The Griswold family has lost two Christmas trees, a chair, and a large swath of carpet. Aunt Grace’s cat is dead, Uncle Louis has been blown across the yard by sewer gas, and Clark’s gratitude from his employer is a measly membership in the “Jelly of the Month Club”; but love abounds. Clark’s idea of a traditional family Christmas has proved to be a joke, but there is genuine peace and joy in the end. Even Clark’s mean old boss eventually grows a heart of flesh instead of stone. As the camera pulls back, Clark stands alone in the snow with Eddie’s dog, Snot, while the police pull away from his trashed house.
“I did it,” he declares.
I know exactly what he means.