Why Clark Griswold Couldn’t Save Christmas

Amber Noel

Nostalgia is a sweet intoxicant. And no one knows how to scoop up a big, frothy moose mug of it better than Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Like Clark, played by Chevy Chase in the 1989 film, philosopher and author James K.A. Smith has looked into the punch bowl of nostalgia. But in his book, How to Inhabit Time, he cautions us against dipping into it too deeply. The risk is that we lose the great “adventure of time” that God gives us—an adventure that doesn’t provide any longed-for escape hatch from the time we’re in, but helps us to dwell within our time’s challenges.

As Christmas Vacation opens, we follow the Griswold station wagon as it takes the family to cut down a Christmas tree from the woods—too late in the day and without a saw. Later on, extended family arrive at the house in untimely ways, the overcooked turkey is a smoking horror, and everyone overstays their welcome. No one’s having a good time. Despite the Advent calendar counting down the days, time is out of joint.

Underneath it all, pater familias Clark waits to receive a tardy bonus check, so that he can perfect the “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas” for everyone—whether they like it or not. In the process, they’re almost car-wrecked, frozen, smashed, electrocuted, trampled, arrested, and blown sky-high. When the house is trashed, the tree burned down, and the check hasn’t come, Clark snaps. “It’s over,” says his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo). To which Clark replies, crazy-eyed, “Not according to Santa’s watch it isn’t!”

Dyschronometria is a medical condition of not being able to keep time. But unlike Aunt Bethany’s harmless inability to remember which decade it is, Clark’s dyschronometria, as James K.A. Smith defines it in How to Inhabit Time, is a spiritual problem—a state in which we’re either stuck in nostalgia, holding onto the past, or denying we’re shaped by history at all. Smith calls folks in this state “lost” and even dangerous, “because they are so confident they know where they are, like the stereotypical dad” who keeps stubbornly driving in the wrong direction while his wife holds the map.

With his strained mask of cheerfulness and rabbit-in-the-headlights expression—I call it the “oh s***” look—Clark does seem lost. He constantly has to be dragged back to where—and when—he is. “Are you out here for a reason,” Ellen asks, as Clark obsesses over twinkling lights, “or are you just avoiding the family?” Later, Ellen finds him locked in the attic, draped in a woman’s old mink coat, watching 8mm family films, and crying (while also avoiding a family shopping day). “Would you just take it easy, Ellen? I’m in complete control!” he shouts at another point, even as his road rage sends the family car careening under a logging truck.

Clark’s determination to create the ideal Christmas does the opposite. At heart, letting go of nostalgia’s demands—which Smith says are too often “invoked as marching orders”—requires letting go of control. Otherwise, as we see in Clark’s progressive meltdowns, the hope for an old-fashioned family Christmas is “not hope but hubris.”

Despite the Advent calendar counting down the days, time is out of joint.

Against Clark’s thinly veiled fear arrives Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), slouching onto the scene with his beer-stained, relaxed, and grudgeless lack of interest in control. Eddie embodies a much-needed tonic for nostalgia sufferers: surprise. “You surprised?” he asks when he arrives in his rusty mobile home, family and rottweiler in tow. “Surprised, Eddie? If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now,” Clark responds.

As when Ellen pulls the attic door out from under Clark while he weeps dreamily over family films, surprises can land us in painful opportunities for grace—the divine grace that “wants to unleash our history,” in Smith’s words, allowing us to “live into a version of ourselves that the world needs.” And this, insists Smith, includes a proper and honest reckoning with time, like Clark’s pivotal come-to-Jesus moment with his dad, Clark Griswold Sr. (John Randolph), in the laundry room on Christmas night.

Clark Sr.: Son, I love ya. We all love ya. But this is a terrible night. . . . And you’re too good a father to act like this. In years to come you want your children and your family to remember all the love you gave us. . . You just cocked it up. It’s OK. It happens.

Clark: All our holidays were always such a mess. . . . How did you get through it?

Clark Sr.: I had a lotta help from Jack Daniels.

Here, Clark’s loving father pops his strained fantasy bubble and shows him the reality to which he’s actually responsible—with grace and humor. And Clark’s goodness is revealed, too: he hasn’t been trying to relive the past, so much as he’s been trying to heal it. Maybe now, he’s got a shot.

It’s hard to choose the uncontrollable “adventure of time.” But, lest we forget, these time-bound limits are exactly what God chose to embrace in the Incarnation, as Immanuel, God with Us. What happens when we try to escape the demanding “with” and go with our own plans instead? National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation shows us that, despite our best efforts, it might not make for the “hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby danced with Danny f****** Kaye.” And yet grace shows up, even at the climax of disaster.

That great comedy could emerge from great dysfunction is a grace in itself. In fact, you might call the arrival of Jesus among us the highest joke in history. The shape of our human mess, even in a spoofy Christmas film, reveals space for God’s providence, pointing to how he works, has worked, will always work, with his beloved, self-deluding, time-bound creatures.

Topics: Movies