Re-Post: Christmas Vacation’s Insight into American Christmas

I posted this about a year ago and still find the insight from the movie quite compelling.

Though the more recent “National Lampoon’s” movies are obscene and generally void of anything resembling symbolism or depth, I came to an odd conclusion tonight about one of the original movies, Christmas Vacation, starring Chevy Chase. The entire movie presents Clark, the overly-enthusiastic father, and his attempts to create the perfect Christmas: freshly cut tree, 25,000 lights, Santa Clause, family ’round the table…all of these things are humorously disrupted by his own problems and his odd family.

Three different things in the movie point towards an actual lampoon, an actual satire of the way American society just completely misses “what Christmas is all about” (as Linus says in Peanuts Christmas Special, whose presence on the airways this time of the year is utterly ironic given its anti-commercial message).

1) The movie begins with Clark and his wife singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”- as they conclude, she says, “Oh, that was so beautiful Clark!” But before she can finish her sentence, Clark yammers on with “Deck the Halls.” The contrast is too obvious to miss. Also, this hymn (which repeats at a couple key moments in the movie) is the only reference to anything spiritual or Christian. None of the characters ever talks about anything church-y in relation to Christmas, which I think is deliberate.

2) The whole family sits down to pray before the meal. Clark asks his aging, senile, aunt-in-law to give the blessing, and she proceeds to lead them in the Pledge of Allegiance.

3) End of the movie, through a series of hilarious events, there is an explosion outside, and this same senile aunt-in-law leads everyone in the Star Spangled Banner.

These last two events are what struck me as the most poignant. Right as dinner is to be served, the most obvious chance to remember Jesus is passed up for the Pledge. This strikes right at the heart of American civil religion-pledging to the flag is just another way of praying to it and most people’s family Christmas celebrations are more in line with a prayer to the god America than a prayer to Jesus. Christmas, for many Americans and others, is simply a way to pay homage to the all-mighty dollar, the compelling advertisement, and the slave-masters of greed, covetousness, and materialism.

The movie seems to affirm the spirit of Clark’s attempts; maybe Christmas is really not about the material stuff, but the sense of family and warmth and togetherness that all the material stuff helps to foster. But just as you start to believe that, senile aunt-in-law reminds us that, no, this too is merely an American mis-perception about Christmas. She bursts forth in the Star Spangled Banner, an appropriate tribute for the misguided emphasis on Christmas being about your forming tighter-knit bonds to the exclusion of neighbors and enemies (just take, for example, Clark’s miserly next-door neighbors). Couldn’t the over-emphasis on my personal, nuclear family be just another form of unhealthy patriotism? If so, then the National Anthem is amazingly appropriate for this scene in the movie; it reminds us that none of this is really “what Christmas is all about.”

Do I think that being with family is wrong? No. Or that it’s not one of the blessings of this time of year? Not at all. But, that’s not what Christmas is all about. In fact, Christmas is the ultimate spin on this kind of family love–God says, “Yes, I’m coming to be with my family, but it looks a lot different and a lot bigger than you imagine.” Look at the family God chose to come into the world through: a teenage mother who became pregnant before marriage, a (at first) reluctant husband, born into a dark cave where both rich and poor came to celebrate.  The first Christmas reminds us that our understanding of family is so much smaller than that of God’s.

I’m glad people spend a month of the year trying to be more loving to each other. You can’t complain about that. And sometimes without knowing it, people begin to embody the peace-bringing message of Christ’s birth. It usually happens in spite of our bumbling around not because of it. But Christ’s birth reminds us that the kingdom has begun to come on earth as it is in heaven, and that’s not a 25 days out of the year job.  I think movies like  Joyeux Noel do a wonderful job giving examples of what Christmas can be about–when warring armies can put down the sword and realize they don’t need to keep killing each other.

Movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation remind us that we are no where near that 99% of the time.


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