The holiday season is the happiest time of the year. From listening to Christmas music and baking cookies to seeing loved ones and watching classic movies, everything is filled with moments of absolute joy. But alongside the holiday spirit comes plenty of stress and frustration, and few films capture this juxtaposition more perfectly than National Lampoon’s Christmas Holidayit’s why author John Hughes’ 1989 classic is a Christmas movie classic.
From the start, the film captures the bittersweet nature of the holiday. The Griswolds go on a family trip to get their Christmas tree, but they are badly equipped. Audrey (Juliette Lewis) is frozen numb. Without having proper tools, Clark (Chevy Chase) was forced to uproot the big tree by tying it to the car. Scene after scene, the theme of peaks and valleys is tied into the story.
While spending the holidays with the family can be fun, the Griswolds experience the opposite end of the spectrum. Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) herself said it best not long after her in-laws settled down. “I don’t know what to say except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery,” Ellen told Aubrey. In various ways, the in-laws drive Clark and his family crazy, most notably when Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) arrives and threatens to thwart Clark’s ambitions of having a great Christmas.
Family drama, just like comedies come every now and then, is a true enduring appeal Christmas holidays. Seeing Clark deal with his in-laws’ obnoxious behavior and still try his hardest to be a good host captures the overarching struggles of the holiday season. As extreme as it may be, hearing Clark joke around wondering if he could just shoo Eddie away into the middle of nowhere and leave him to die still resonates 30 years after the film’s release. Family leaves people at their wits end, especially during the stressful holiday season, and seeing Clark struggle hits home every time.
Besides just focusing on all these tensions, Christmas holidays cuts things off with lots of laugh-out-loud humor. Christmas dinner is often the peak of stress during the holiday season, as it puts everyone at the same table and leaves no room for escape. Of course, one of the best parts of the film comes when Clark delivers his unforgettable rant after his boss spends his Christmas bonus on the cheap. As well as Clark’s condemnation, he also snapped and said they were on the “edge of hell”. Thankfully, after talking to his father, who reminded him that his actions had repercussions on the family, Clark saw his mistake and changed course, determined to do what he could to save the celebration.
Yes, this film leans heavily on the comedic side of humor when Cousin Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss, which causes a SWAT team to storm the house. But despite this wild climax, Clark realizes what the holidays are all about as he admires what he calls the Christmas Star with his family. Through all the aggravation and borderline “woe,” as Ellen puts it, Clark still had a great Christmas and got a happy ending, complete with a kiss from his wife, which he was looking for. The closing line of his triumphant film, “I did it”, brings it all together; Clark is pushed to the brink of practical insanity, but he manages to hang on. If Clark can get through all of that and reach the other side, then there’s hope for everyone.
On surface, Christmas holidays sung by jokes that always descend, accompanied by iconic performances from Chase. But the film’s deeper legacy lies in its portrayal of how the holidays come with a lot of pressure. Most people don’t have to deal with a SWAT team crashing their holiday dinner, but many can certainly relate to Clark’s struggles with his annoying in-laws that cause him to lose the meaning of Christmas. These difficulties are validating, just as his ability to overcome them is inspirational.