Christmas Vacation (1989)


Christmas Vacation is a 1989 Christmas comedy film directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik. It is the third installment in National Lampoon's Vacation film series, and was written by John Hughes, based on his short story in National Lampoon Magazine, Christmas '59. The title song was written for the movie by the husband-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and was performed by Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers fame. Since its release in 1989, Christmas Vacation has been ranked on many lists of "Top 10 Favorite Christmas Films" and is considered a modern holiday classic.


The movie begins with Clark taking Ellen, Rusty and Audrey on the search for "The Griswold Family Christmas Tree." After aggravating other motorists, getting stuck under a big rig and sending their speeding car crashing into a snowbank, the Griswolds set off into the wilderness on foot. After a lengthy march in the snow, which leaves Audrey frozen from the waist down, Clark finally finds the perfect tree, albeit a massively oversized pine, only to realize that he forgot to bring a saw. The scene cuts from Clark's dumbfounded expression to the entire tree, roots and all, atop the family's wood-paneled Ford Taurus wagon, likely an updated reference to the Family Truckster from the original film. Once home, Clark breaks several windows and gets covered in tree sap setting up the tree, as it barely fits in the Griswolds' front yard, let alone the living room. While shortening the tree in his driveway, Clark exchanges words with his yuppie neighbors, Margo and Todd Chester. It is clear from their reaction to Clark's massive tree that Griswold family holidays are a known spectacle. Clark has been working on a major project at his food-products firm which he expects will earn him a sizable Christmas bonus. Clark plans to use the bonus (and the rest of his savings) to put in a swimming pool, for which he has already placed a $7,500 deposit. Clark faces difficulty in broaching the subject with his gruff boss, Mr. Shirley (Brian Doyle-Murray), a Scrooge-like figure who comically refers to Clark by a different name every time he sees him. Before leaving for the holidays, Clark sheepishly presents a wrapped gift to Mr. Shirley, who directs him to "put it with all the others." Apparently, Clark isn't the only one to try this approach (all of the presents appear identical, only wrapped in different wrapping paper). With his usual over-enthusiasm, Clark has planned a "good, old-fashioned family Christmas." His family is, not surprisingly, wary of his grandiose plans and the chaos that tends to ensue whenever Clark is left to plan a family occasion. Ellen expresses discomfort at Clark's tendency to go overboard with even the simplest of holidays and how having both her parents and his parents under the same roof will lead to arguments and discord. Clark is oblivious to her sensible concerns and remains determined to have his very own Norman Rockwell Christmas. Rusty and Audrey are, understandably, not convinced. As Christmas approaches, the many members of the Griswolds' extended family begin arriving to stay with them. Clark's and Ellen's parents are the first to arrive, an ominous doorbell and a four-person argument signaling their joint arrival. Clark gets out of the house by going to set up the Christmas lights on the house. He drags along a bored Rusty. Over the next several hours, Clark covers nearly every inch of the home's exterior and yard with (according to Clark himself, a grand total of 25,000 imported Italian twinkle-lights). He works into the night, suffering many injuries and falls in the process, including one which sends a block of ice flying through Todd and Margo's window. After the house is covered, Clark calls the family outside for the switching-on ceremony. Clad in their pajamas and bathrobes, the assembled family watches as Clark plugs in the last wires. None of the lights come on and his relatives mock his typical overkill. The family files back inside and Clark stares at the house, broken. Ellen, having gone back inside, flips a light-switch to check the many extension cords Clark has plugged in. Her flipping the switch causes the Christmas lights to come on in a blinding flash of white light, to the surprised awe of Clark, the only one still watching. When she finishes looking at wires, Ellen flips the switch off and the lights go out. Clark loses his patience and loudly takes it out on a plastic Santa in the yard as the family watches, confused. Ellen, having figured out the problem, goes back inside and flips the switch again, this time for good. The Griswold house is a beacon of light, easily the most visible object in the neighborhood. The sudden draw of electricity drains the city's electrical grid and the power plant workers are shown switching on an emergency reactor. The lights, as bright as direct sunlight, also blind Clark's neighbors, disrupting their peaceful night and leading to falls, flash-blindness and a stained carpet. After the lights are up and running, the re-assembled family congratulates Clark on the spectacle. Unbeknownst to the group, Ellen's cousins from Kansas, Eddie and Catherine, have arrived (unannounced) and line up next to the family, to the unfortunate surprise of Clark when he notices their presence. Eddie and Catherine have brought two of their children and a mucus-encrusted dog (aptly-named "Snots") in a dilapidated, rusted-out RV that now crowds Clark's driveway. Clark is of course displeased to see Ellen's raucous cousins but politely welcomes them to the family Christmas. He and Ellen are distraught when they realize that Eddie and Catherine arrived virtually penniless and won't be able to give their children any presents for Christmas. He is also disgusted to see Eddie, in a revealing bathrobe, pouring his RV's chemical toilet into Clark's storm sewer, the sight of which spooks Clark's neighbor Todd into running inside and locking the door. Cousin Eddie's financial woes put a damper on Clark's holiday plans but he is mostly distracted by the fact that his bonus check still has not arrived. One night, Clark treats Eddie and all four children to a sledding trip in the country. To boost his sled's performance, Clark adds a coat of a "Non-Caloric, Silicon-Based Kitchen Lubricant" that his company produces. The resulting ride rockets Clark through the forest at break-neck speed, across a major intersection and into a holiday display in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The next morning, while everyone else is still asleep, Clark opens the attic stairway and carries up bags of presents to hide from the others. He finds a dusty crack in the wall and shoves a delicately-wrapped gift into it, while also pulling out a forgotten gift he had stuffed in there years before. Meanwhile, Clark's mother-in-law has noticed the cold draft in the house and closes the attic stairway when she sees it, trapping Clark. The rest of the family wakes up, gets dressed and piles into the car to go shopping, not hearing Clark's shouts for help from the attic window. Realizing he's trapped in a freezing attic for the day, Clark digs out an old box of ladies clothing and bundles up in pink gloves and a fur coat. While dressing, he comes across some old filmstrips of the family Christmases of his childhood. As he tearfully watches the bucolic films of simpler, happier family Christmases, the family returns from shopping. Still in the moment, he is caught unaware when Ellen reaches up to pull down the attic stairs and Clark, having been sitting on them all day, tumbles down and onto Ellen and her bags of gifts, abruptly ending the peaceful memories. On Christmas Eve, the family's eldest members, wisecracking, cigar-smoking Uncle Lewis and hilariously-confused Aunt Bethany, arrive for dinner. Aunt Bethany, out of either senility or financial hardship, gives the Griswolds two presents from her own belongings: A leaking Jell-O mold (sprinkled with cat food) and a box that shakes and meows ("she wrapped up her damn cat!") and Rusty comments - "I can't wait to see what I got." Clark lets the cat out of its gift box and Ellen puts the Jell-O mold with the other Christmas dishes. The entire family sits down to a formal dinner but the scene is quickly ruined when the turkey deflates and grotesquely splits open from being overcooked. While the family politely and silently eats the dried remnants of dinner, Aunt Bethany's cat is electrocuted when it chews on a strand of Christmas lights under a recliner. After dinner, Uncle Lewis relaxes in the living room and lights a cigar too close to the tree, sending a fireball into the next room and forcing Clark to quickly search for a replacement, chainsaw in hand. He takes one from Todd and Margo's yard, breaking one of their windows in the process, and sets it up atop what's left of the presents. While the family is still staring in shock, a manic squirrel leaps out of the tree and chases the group throughout the house, leading to a stampede of relatives and a dog-on-squirrel chase that destroys most of the furniture. The stampede ends when someone opens the front door to let out the squirrel and the dog, both of which trample a surprised Margo, who had gone to the Griswolds' door to complain about the destruction. Clark's and Ellen's parents have had enough and prepare to leave. Clark, now at his boiling point, goes on a frustrated (and surprisingly-profane) outburst that leaves everyone stunned but willing to stay. Breaking the awkwardness, a letter from the company arrives by courier, everyone expecting it to be the long-awaited bonus. Unfortunately, Clark finds out that, instead of a bonus check, he has received enrollment in the "Jelly of the Month" club. Clark has now reached his boiling point and launches into another angry, profanity-laced tirade against his deceitful boss. Eddie slips away and kidnaps Mr. Shirley from his home, fulfilling Clark's frustrated wish that his boss were there that night, "with a big ribbon on his head." Mr. Shirley angrily threatens Clark's job for the kidnapping but is called out on his secret cancellation of company bonuses. He sees the error of his ways and, just as he is about to apologize, a SWAT team, called by Mr. Shirley's panicked wife, bursts through the windows and doors, destroying even more of the Griswold home. Mr. Shirley explains the misunderstanding about bonuses to the police, as well as his disappointed wife. He admits he was wrong to cut bonuses and reinstates Clark's bonus, adding an extra 20%. As the situation winds down, the family gathers again on the front lawn, where Clark points out the "Christmas Star" to Eddie's Children. This beautiful moment is spoiled by Uncle Lewis, who lights a cigar and wheezes that the "star" is really a light on the sewage treatment plant. Clark, remembering the chemicals Eddie had poured down the sewer, yells at Lewis not to drop his match but it's too late: The sewer gas explodes in a flash and sends Clark's plastic Santa-with-eight-reindeer display flying into the night sky like a shooting star. Clark watches this strange but touching sight and finally realizes that his dream of the perfect, albeit weird, family Christmas has finally come true.