Eight Reasons Why Christmas Vacation is the Best Christmas Movie

December 8, 2010 – What I offer you here is not a list of the best, funniest, or even the most baffling moments of the 21-year-old Christmas classic National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. That would be all too easy. I mean, all I would have to do is mention things like wondering what it’s like to live in a world where it’s appropriate to give Tetris pieces as gifts, or commenting on the way that Beverly D’Angelo’s Christmas Eve blouse makes me think decidedly un-Christmasy things, or make fun of the way Juliette Lewis pronounces the word “fungus.”

Nor would I leave out extoling the joy of phrases like “non-nutritive cereal varnish,” bringing up the fact that you rarely hear the word “cock” as a verb, or admitting that I’ve never heard the phrase “newel post” in any other context but Chevy Chase with a Santa hat and a chainsaw. Honestly, I’m starting to regret not taking that direction, now. Instead, I'm actually going to take this comedy seriously.

So, now that I've spent two paragraphs explaining what this article is not, here are eight reasons why National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is better than your favorite Christmas movie. Eight, because the maids a-milking day of Christmas is my favorite.

William Hicky, Christmas icon. Also the voice of
Dr. Finklestein from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
1. No central gimmick. Hollywood always tromps all over the fine line between “plot” and “gimmick,” and Christmas movies are often even worse offenders. With Christmas Vacation, the plot of this movie is just: Regular guy tries to celebrate Christmas the best way he can. It's relatable. It’s relevant. It's elastic. It’s simple. It’s imminently rewatchable. And every single comment, event, and image in the movie supports the premise like aluminum ladders and attic floors do not.

2. Genuinely touching moments are not taken too far. I’m surprised that after three decades of watching sappy Christmas specials that I don’t hate Christmas with every fiber of my bran cereal. Even in real life the most touching scenes get disturbing after too long. And that’s true whether you’re a rescued miner, a cancer survivor, or the three-year-old that dialed 911 when your father had a heart attack.

The best example of this in the movie is the attic scene, where Clark finds old home movies and watches them to a badly lyric’d but moving Ray Charles croon. First, they take the sentimental edge off by having Clark dress in 30s-era drag to keep warm and then, right before the emotional moment gets burdensome to the audience, hilariously end it when his wife opens the attic door and sends him drunk-Santa-down-a-chimney. The movie’s full of sincerity that doesn’t take itself seriously.

3. It’s a Christmas compendium. All the various aspects of Christmas are events in this movie, not just backdrops for plot points. Tree hunting, mall shopping, advent calendar opening, house decorating, family dinner eating, gingerbread house making, The Night Before Christmas reading. Each scene is like its own self-contained short and not just a box to check off of some Hallmark Channel producer’s list.

My wife made this point better when she told me it was like a best-of reel from every other great Christmas movie. Heck, if any extraterrestrial came down and asked me about Christmas, this is the movie I’d set him in front of. Smelgon would totally get Christmas after that.

4. No miraculous personality transformations. Only one storyteller in the history of Christmas storytelling has ever been able to pull that off in a believable way, and it took him four ghosts and mastery of his chosen form. The phrase “From now on,” doesn’t appear once in this movie. The self-interested yuppie neighbors remain self-interested yuppie neighbors.

I mean, sure, Clark’s boss does remedy a wrong at the end, but it takes a kidnapping and a SWAT team to convince him. But it's not a change of heart. It's a mere change of mind. The guy from Groundhog Day realizes he made one jerk move too far, and fixed that one thing only. I do that nine times a day, and it's never a Christmas miracle.

5. It avoids every Christmas movie cliché. No kid wanted a particular sold-out toy for Christmas, Santa did not need any help fulfilling his Christmas duties, nobody spent a lifetime missing the meaning of Christmas, there was no easy anti-commercialism message, nobody is having trouble getting home for the holidays. I would keep going until the next government-recognized holiday, but I’m loathe to reveal my full, completely embarrassing knowledge of Christmas movie clichés.

Ha. They look like they're posing for my camera.

6. It doesn't veer too far into the outlandish. It's hard to do absurdity well. It’s even harder to do a movie that irregularly slips into absurdity. Once you reach too far for a joke, you tip your hand and show everybody you’re just desperate for laughs. Desperation isn’t funny. Well, not that kind of desperation, anyway.

Also, we all know that the second somebody tries too hard to be funny, they’re not. And, since the definition of a comedy movie is millions of dollars thrown at an attempt at funny, that means that most comedies just end up ridiculous. Christmas Vacation mostly avoids that somehow. I’m not sure how, honestly, especially since it does get horseshoes and hand grenades to the outlandish (I’m thinking of the sled scene in particular, which goes on too long and ends with that inexplicable “Bingo”). I think it just does a remarkably good job of being grounded and letting the humor grow where it may. It even handled the driving under a logging truck well. Most comedies would’ve messed that up.

7. Animated introductory credits. Seriously. I mean, what sets the Christmas mood more than a cartoon Santa? Product marketers have known that for years. We all love live-action Christmas movies, but we all grew up on animated Christmas specials. As a result, cartoons always have the potential to be somewhat more effective at evocating the Christmas mood for us. Oh, and the answer to that original question is an animated Santa following by Clark Griswold in a Blackhawks jersey.

8. The soundtrack. Anybody can throw carols into a film (there are only like nine of them anyway), but a movie that can use Mele Kalikimaka in a way that doesn’t make me want to go back in time and hire David Bowie to knife Bing Crosby or invert Here Comes Santa Claus into a SWAT team raid song put a little more thought into their soundtrack. Heck, the theme song even makes me happy every time I hear it.

That’s what I got. And maybe you disagree with me. That's fine. We cool. But you at least have to admit that you’ll never find a better Christmas movie that doesn’t even bother to feature Christmas itself in it.

You did it, Clark.