As National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation begins for the last time tonight, I want to enjoy it. I want to find the family interactions inside this package endearing and pleasant. There are moments that achieve this. Audrey’s support of her father when his lights fail, for example. Clark’s conversation with Ruby Sue, for another. Clark hugging everyone after the lights work comes close, but he (and the scene) overdoes it.
The question is not, for now, what is the meaning of Christmas or what is the meaning of a Christmas movie. Rather, what do I want out of a Christmas movie? The problem in answering this one is that I am not the audience for Christmas movies. Most any year, if a Christmas movie comes out, I won’t go see it. Most of them are nice, wholesome, family-friendly comedies, stuff like Jingle All the Way (haven’t seen it), Home Alone (saw it in the theater, seen it many times since), Elf (watched it once on DVD, was entertained but not particularly moved), It’s a Wonderful Life (don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie all the way through, but I have heard a radio play version of it several times), Miracle on 34th Street (never seen it), The Santa Clause (have seen maybe a scene or two), The Nightmare before Christmas (saw it at a second-run theater, have seen it a couple times since, fantastic visuals, beautiful design work and animation, but it just leaves me cold), Scrooged (saw it at that same second-run theater, and have watched it a handful of times since, including this year for this blog. Earlier this year, I also watched 12 Dates of Christmas for this blog, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying.)... And, so many more. My kind of Christmas movie is something like Die Hard (saw it in the theater, have seen it many times since, and will be watching it for this blog next month) or Lethal Weapon (ditto), or Silent Night, Deadly Night (rented it from Blockbuster on one of my movie marathon Saturday nights about 20 years ago, and just watched it last week).
One of my favorite movies is a Christmas movie, if you just go by setting rather than subject—Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which I will be watching for this blog at some point, but I haven’t figure out when my “favorite movies” month will be). Bad Santa was entertaining but I’ve never felt the need to watch it a second time (though I do want to watch it this year because I recently learned a couple friends of mine watch it every Christmas and I’m curious about its rewatchability). Gremlins is a Christmas movie, apparently, but I kind of forgot about that angle. I’ve seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, as well as How the Grinch Stole Christmas (at least in part), and A Charlie Brown Christmas, but never really watched any of those until I was married—my wife had grown up with Christmas. Similarly, I had never seen A Christmas Story (which I will be watching this next week for this blog) until then either. Christmas was never my thing growing up but movies were. There are far more non-Christmas movies than Christmas movies, though, so while I’ve seen a few Christmas movies, the numbers just are not in their favor.
For comparison, the weekend Christmas Vacation came out in theaters was Back to the Future Part II‘s second weekend (I saw it the first weekend), The Little Mermaid‘s third weekend (pretty sure I saw that one its first weekend as well), Look Who’s Talking‘s eighth weekend (probably saw that its first weekend), Dad‘s sixth weekend (probably saw that in its first or second weekend) and All Dogs Go to Heaven‘s third weekend (may have seen that one its first weekend as well, but maybe not, since The Little Mermaid was out that weekend as well). It was also the 18th weekend for Parenthood (which I probably saw pretty early in its run) and the 24th for Batman (I had probably already seen that movie several times in the theater). The Bear and Steel Magnolias were also out that weekend Christmas Vacation came out (sixth and third weekends, respectively) but I wouldn’t see either of those in the theater. The next weekend War of the Roses would be released, but I didn’t see that one in the theater. A couple weeks after Christmas Vacation, I’d see Glory in the theater, and that weekend or soon thereafter (possibly at the second-run theater) Family Business. The Wizard, Driving Miss Daisy and We’re No Angels would also be out, but I don’t think I’d see any of those on the big screen. The week after that: Tango & Cash (saw it in the theater, probably that first weekend), Always (saw it on home video), Born on the Fourth of July (saw it in the theater) and Roger and Me (would not see it until more than a decade later, when Bowling for Columbine brought Michael Moore to my attention). Simply put, there are a lot of movies out there, and I have done my best to see a whole lot of them. Christmas movies, Easter movies... wait, is that a thing? Anyway, Christmas movies were never a priority. Most of the time, they seem a bit corny, schmaltzy, not my kind of thing.
Or they bypass “Christmas” mostly like many a Shane Black movie—the aforementioned Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as well as Iron Man 3. Asked why his movies are set at Christmas, Black (no relation, by the way) told Den of Geek,
Christmas is fun. It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it ground everything... At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friend and families go by. People take reckoning [and they take] stock of where their lives are at Christmas.
I would suggest that taking stock thing extends through the whole “holiday” period through New Year’s. The Calendar, however artificial a construct, gets to us psychologically. The end of a year (as we’ll be having in less than two weeks as I write this) gets us to thinking. A Christmas movie—like Christmas Vacation—doesn’t necessarily help if we are one of those lonely people Black refers to; instead, seeing the happy family gatherings, if we see the film, demonstrates something that we are missing, or we just avoid seeing it... No, that isn’t it. We don’t avoid it, we just don’t make the effort. There are better things to do, and other movies to see.
It occurs to me, looking at lists of Christmas movies as I write this entry, that having a Christmas movie about someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas is not a thing; there’s always the Scrooge factor, the main character a Scrooge-figure who just hasn’t discovered the true joy of Christmas just yet. We don’t make movies about characters not celebrating Christmas. Or any special occasion, for that matter. Not without them coming around in the end, at least.
It’s not like I’m one of those Scrooge-Figures, by the way. I wasn’t deprived of gifts as a kid. We just did the whole gift thing on a different occasion (the Feast of Tabernacles, if you’re trying to gauge my actual religious upbringing). I liked getting gifts. I mean, who doesn’t. Nowadays, I don’t know that getting gifts is that important to me. But, I do like the opportunity to get stuff for my kids, especially stuff that isn’t on their Christmas lists. I also participate in at least one Secret Santa and one White Elephant exchange around Christmas each year. And, I think I’ve already mentioned that we’ve got a Christmas tree and stockings. We live in an apartment so there’s no elaborate display of lights outside. I can imagine going a little overboard with them if I had the space, though, do something fancy with blinking messages spelled out in the lights or something.
But no penguins.
Saw some penguins in a lawn display tonight and complained. Saer it was fine because they’re cute. But, cute just isn’t good enough for me. Christmas, I told her, is a North Pole thing. Penguins are a South Pole thing. It’s just wrong.
And, my one lament with this week of Christmas Vacation ending is that I will never get to write about Rusty Griswold’s poster of turtles having sex.