National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989): The Five Movies of Christmas

Like many households, the Patrick family has their own traditional holiday rituals. We have our stockings and tree ornaments, our exterior light decorations, Mexican aniseed cookies, opening one present on Christmas Eve, essential Christmas Records — but the one we cherish the most is our annual Christmas movie marathon. Each of these five must be watched before the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day. I’ll count them down now until Christmas.

On the first day of Christmas my reel love gave to me… The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

On the second day of Christmas my reel love gave gave to me…

Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo - Christmas Vacation (1989)
Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

The Five Movies of Christmas: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation didn’t actually become the essential Christmas movie in my household until I had children. I enjoyed it, certainly. And watched the John Hughes-penned comedy once in awhile around the holidays. It just wasn’t until I had children myself that I completely and totally identified with Clark Griswold.

Not with the need to spot my house from orbit (though the intricacies of our outdoor decorations certainly increased alongside toddler napping). And not even with the size and eccentricities of my immediate family. Both sides of the family tree boast a share of unique characters, but unlike Cousin Eddie they don’t happen to drop by because everyone’s scattered across the country from Santa Fe to Wisconsin, Georgia to New York. Occasionally Christmas gets lively, but we’ve never roasted cats or chased squirrels or exploded chemical toilets.

Clark Griswold in the National Lampoon’s Vacation films is every man. His intentions are pure, even when the go astray. His aim always a “good old fashioned family Christmas.”

Christmas Vacation family dinner
The Griswolds all seated around the Christmas table.

We all want Christmas to run smoothly. It never does. We hold it together as best we can. Sometimes we succeed. Family’s always most important, even when you absolutely 100% cannot stand the sight of any of them.

The scene that now stands out for me — actually two scenes — but we’ll start with the one that provides the emotional backbone of the entire movie. Clark, trapped in his attic after the family has gone shopping, discovers a box full of old family film as he digs around for old clothes to keep him warm. He loads up the film reels and watches his childhood Christmases huddled underneath clothes once belonging to elder family members. Certainly sappy. I’m sure I glossed over that scene as a kid waiting for more terrible things to happen to Todd and Margot next door.

national lampoon's christmas vacation christmas eve
The Christmas Eve cacophony reaches a crescendo in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Today, however, that scene makes Christmas Vacation more than just “tolerating” family. It’s the scene that remind Clark and all of us that these are the moments we’ll remember and cherish as long as we live. Even if every single one of these goddamn people drives us insane.

So when Christmas Vacation reaches its second emotional crescendo — when Christmas Eve goes totally, irrevocably wrong — and Clark screams “Hallelujah. Holy shit. Where’s the Tylenol?” it’s not the ravings of a soulless patriarch. It’s the ravings of a patriarch who’s been reminded how much each moment horrible, wonderful moment matters. This is Chevy Chase’s greatest line reading in the history of his career, by the way, and I say that as a devoted, obsessive fan of Three Amigos!, Caddyshack and Fletch.

Merry Christmas, everybody. Happy holidays. Remember to cherish the lunatics in your own life.

christmas vacation poster art
Christmas Vacation poster art by Barrett Chapman.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is available everywhere. If for some reason you don’t have a copy of your own, you’ll find no shortage of ways to watch this classic during the holidays including Amazon Streaming, Netflix DVD service,

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. He hosts the Cinema Shame and #Bond_age_Pod podcasts. Follow his blog at and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook

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