It’s a wonderful movie with a wonderful message and a wonderful ending. It has well known characters dear to our hearts and gives us the reminder that no matter how bad things get, we’re all still important to the world around us. And it used to be our family classic movie selection during the holiday season, generally on Christmas Eve. We own it. But a few years back we decided to put aside “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a movie more in line with our family celebrations, mishaps, and realities, because none of us have ever had a visit from an angel.
Enter the Griswold family Christmas.
That’s what we call it in our house – our Christmas, not the movie – in fact we use that line for many things, like the Griswold family picture, or the Griswolds go to Edmonton etc. It’s fitting, especially once something has gone wrong. It wasn’t enough that the original Vacation movie brought to the big screen the many real life issues faced on a family trip and turned what were simple disagreements, annoyances, and unexpected circumstances into a blockbuster hit that so many families could relate to in one way or another.
There just had to be a Christmas Vacation version, packed with the saga of
hanging the lights, a Christmas bonus on the line after overspending, and the big family get together including certain dreaded relatives, some invited, some just showing up – the embarrassing ones, that no one really wants to introduce to a newcomer. Of course, the exaggerations are what make it funny, but there’s a little bit of that Christmas disaster that helps many of us feel like it’s OK if things don’t turn out quite the way we planned. The Griswolds are a family we can relate to and they help us laugh at ourselves. And seriously, don’t we all feel a little bit sad for Clark when the lights don’t work?
I learned long ago that Norman Rockwell’s Christmas existed only in paintings, sentimental movies, the Cleaver family, and perhaps the homes of very rich people with servants who made sure that every light bulb evenly spaced on a garland packed winding staircase shone, blinked or flashed according to plan, that the turkey was roasted to perfection and served precisely at the moment when everyone was dressed and seated to watch Father-Knows-Best carve it into thin succulent pieces you could slice with a fork. But I wouldn’t know for sure about the rich part.
Our Christmas dinner growing up consisted of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce – JELLIED ONLY – and gravy. It never varied and we liked it that way. But that was as Rockwell as it got. Our dinner was “timed” based on the games we were playing all day and once the competition closest to a reasonable supper time came to an end – and not a minute before – my mom carved the turkey (gasp!) on the counter before it was served on the platter carefully with distinct sections for white and dark meat because each of us had a definite preference. Dad never carved anything unless he was guilted into it, and then it became a form of entertainment, as did anything involving my dad.
Once I was married and we spent a few Christmas Days like the walking dead after being up until 4 am the night before (midnight Mass) we moved our Christmas dinner to Boxing Day because we all preferred to snack and relax and no one really appreciated a big supper – I didn’t feel like cooking it and the rest of my family didn’t feel like eating it. The kids didn’t like the pressure of having to forego or at least limit their enjoyment of treats only prepared at holiday time because supper was coming. I wonder if the Cleavers ever considered that? My dad wasn’t pleased at first with such a monumental change, but he eventually either mellowed or simply gave up the fight because he got used to it.
We always liked to cook the biggest bird we could find because the leftovers were awesome. I used to be able to eat turkey for a week. Then one day I realized I was done, i was tired of it. I liked the first meal and had no desire for a sandwich the next day. WHAT? how did that happen? I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t love it anymore (sorry Rockwell). So the birds got smaller and we froze leftovers and pulled them out sometime before Easter when the next turkey came along.
Enter the turkey allergy. Now we have a family member allergic to turkey (probably always was and we just didn’t know because lots of people end up with stomach aches after a big holiday dinner, right?) so our holiday dinners have evolved into a mix of things that are a lot less work (YAY!)
and require little cleanup because that’s the way I roll. The last thing I want to do after Christmas dinner is dishes.
I’ve never had a turkey dinner go as badly as Clark’s did,although one year at Easter when I was still a teenager, we played games with dad so late that mom finally decided to eat alone at about 9pm because the turkey was drying out — I won’t expand on the resulting upset that we later apologized to her for. We might have been just a little too focussed on our competition……
There are the George Bailey’s of this world who are just really good guys and have something crappy happen to them so they need to be reminded that they are really good guys and everyone loves them. And there are the Clark Griswolds of this world who aren’t really any different. I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that, were you? Let’s face it, all Clark wanted was to give his family the best darn Christmas he could give them, with all the lights and gifts and dinner and the tree and the Christmas bonus. And when it all seemed to bomb he went postal: “Alleluia! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?” There was no angel showing up to give him therapy, but his family came through and showed him they loved him.
Of course I can’t end this without mentioning Charlie Brown. His Christmas special has been part of my life since I was a small child and will always be my favourite. It’s such a perfect half hour example of what it takes other movies hours to say: if you have friends and family around who care about you (the dog is a bonus), you can have difficulties and sadness along the way and still have your Christmas turn out just fine.
So whatever your Christmas looks like or tastes like, own it and enjoy it and don’t compare it to anyone else’s because it doesn’t matter. Expectations are something we put on ourselves or allow others to put on us. Learn to say “no” to the media hype, relatives who push too hard, commercial overload, or whatever it is that gets your tinsel in a tangle. It’s your Christmas too. By the time it’s over will you be exhausted and have regrets, or will you be well rested and happy with how you spent it? I’ll be relaxing with my feet up watching the fake fire on TV and not giving a hoot about whether the pictures are art book worthy. Merry Christmas Norman Rockwell, George Bailey, Clark Griswold and Charlie Brown. You’ve all taught me something!