The other night I watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation for the first time. This was to correct a serious cultural deficiency in me—although now that I’ve seen it, I’m not sure that I’m actually better off.
While I realize that this is a lighthearted comedy (the purpose being to entertain), and the intent is ultimately to stress the importance of family and how we should stick it out despite how much we screw things up, offend, infuriate and torment each other (which—don’t get me wrong—is a positive message to send), it left me with the desire to never celebrate another holiday ever again, to never see my own family again, and to never attempt to ever deal with anyone else’s family at family gatherings.
This is probably not exactly the reaction the filmmakers were hoping to engender; and, to be fair, it’s not the reaction that most people will have when they see it.
Part of it is that the whole biologicalness of family gatherings makes me… uncomfortable.
All the parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters, all gathered together under one roof. Now, of course, this is my lizard-brain talking: The part of me that doesn’t get humanity or its social rituals. I mean, I understand the functions and roles, and even the origins, but I don’t “get it” like one of them. The thought of everyone, young and old, gathered around a table, just seems to me overly sentimental, like something out of a Norman Rockwell or even a Thomas Kinkade painting.
My immediate family was removed from our extended families by virtue of the fact that my dad’s family is all in Pennsylvania, and my mom’s family is all on the West coast, so we never really took part in large family gatherings at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and only rarely got to attend family reunions. So family is peculiar to me, and therefore makes me uncomfortable.
And yet there’s another part of me that longs to be included in such gatherings: In being part of a lovable, cute, frustrating, “overcoming it” family. I’ve never had that experience, and the thought of being accepted as “one of them” has a certain appeal.
This appeal has even more urgency to it since, for the time being, I’ve excised myself from my immediate family since they’ve made it clear that they’ll accept their son, but not their gay son and certainly not their gay son’s partner—if and when that ever happens.
I have this elaborate fantasy of finding a guy who happens to come from a big, really welcoming family who will just fall in love with me like I did with him.
His parents will be the parents I never had, and when we meet for the first time they’ll make a big deal about it, and I’ll go over to their place for dinner or something, and his dad will give me a huge hug that’ll crush the breath out of me and his mom will cry because they’re both so happy that their son finally met someone.
And they’ll insist that I come to their home for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and they won’t mind one bit if we stay in his old bedroom (because they’re not old fashioned like that). And I’ll help in the kitchen in preparing the big meal for the family; and they’ll be atheists and agnostics and humanists, and dinner conversation will center around philosophy or science or literature or NPR (because they’ll be articulate, educated, thinking people), and he’ll squeeze my hand under the table because he’s so happy that I’m there; and nobody will mention “God” (except in passing), and nobody would talk about going to church for Christmas Eve service, or want to bring out a cake to sing “Happy birthday” to Jesus (even though Yeshua was probably born closer to Easter if we take the account of his birth seriously). And yes, my family did that, cake and all. And we’ll go on vacations together, and they’ll insist on taking us out to dinner when they’re in town, and maybe go see a show, and vice versa.
And it’ll be the family I never had.
But that is not what I wanted to write about.
What I wanted to write about is Chevy Chase—or rather, Clark Griswold. (Although maybe Chevy Chase.)
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Clark Griswold is this well-meaning, passionate, caring, loving family man. And through the course of each of the National Lampoon movies, he ambles through situations with the well-intentioned grace and poise of a careening wrecking ball. He starts out Christmas Vacation dragging his wife and two very reluctant and freezing children out to a field in the middle of nowhere to pick out the “perfect Christmas tree.” In the process of he and his wife belting out Christmas carols at the top their lungs, he pisses of the locals with his inane driving, and nearly gets them all killed when he inadvertently ends up underneath a semi hauling tree trunks while playing King of the Road with a couple of red necks. He goes on about how picking out a Christmas tree is an American tradition, as if George Washington took time out from hunkering down with the Colonialists at the Battle of Valley Forge to drag a tree home on Christmas Eve to Martha to put up in their living room.
Quick primer on Christmas trees: The modern Christmas tree originated in western Germany as a prop in a mediaeval play about Adam and Eve, with the tree representing the Tree of Life. It first began to appear in British homes after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in the 1840s. It came to America in the 1850s via a publication known as Godey’s Lady’s Book, in which a picture of the royal family’s living room was reproduced with the royal crowns and whatnot removed in order to make it an American scene. So by the 1870s, Christmas trees were ubiquitous in the States.
Back to Christmas Vacation. It only continues to get worse from there. In his tireless and monomaniacal obsession with having the “perfect Christmas,” complete with two giant Christmas trees, every surface of his house being decked in lights (which, as one visual gag describes, drains the entire surrounding power grid to sustain it—a metaphor?), and a horde of relatives who descend obliviously on the house to add their own unique stamp to the mayhem (including one scene where a red neck cousin empties his RV’s septic tank into a storm drain). In the process, Clark’s kids and his neighbors are relentlessly and unapologetically terrorized in his single-minded quest for the “perfect Christmas,” which, in Clark’s mind, probably looks like something straight out of that Norman Rockwell painting, with the family happily gathered around the table, each joyfully taking part in the great American tradition of Christmas.
What we’re left with to witness is a nightmare that spirals out of control. And at the center of it all is Clark, with his almost child-like faith in the institution of Christmas and what it represents, no matter how much hell he puts everyone else through.
You know what else is like that? The fundamentalist Christian.
I saw in Clark’s enthusiasm for the Christmas tradition the same single-minded devotion to the teachings of scripture and to the God of the Christian faith: The belief that no matter how dark or confusing things get, what really matters is toughing it out, and that the only thing that truly matters is knowing God and knowing Jesus.
I also saw in his megalomania that same devotion in evangelical fundamentalist Christians that leads them to try to impose their beliefs on others, and cause reckless emotional and psychological havoc in those around them. On a personal level, I look at the issue of homosexuality and the untold lives of misery and agony that have been suffered by gays and lesbians over the centuries at the hands of Christians alone, all because a narrow reading of a number of scripture passages leads them to teach that homosexuality is wrong. And then there’s the doctrine of original sin, and how wickedness is basically imputed to every human being ever born all because “Eve ate the apple.” The church teaches that you’re an evil, worthless, corrupt, wicked, rebellious, repulsive and depraved sinner who deserves to suffer an eternity in Hell because God can’t stand the sight of you… all because of what someone else (who probably didn’t even exist in the first place) did however many millennia ago. So you’re constantly asking God for forgiveness for even the smallest of infractions (e.g., losing your temper, telling a “white lie,” watching a show with sex on it), terrified that he’ll send you to Hell anyway or are content with the story that God tortured his son Jesus to death on a cross, basically as a sacrifice to himself.
I kept thinking in watching Christmas Vacation, “It’s a commercialist holiday, for pete sake! All these ‘traditions’—the house decked out in lights, the huge and exorbitant feast, the presents, the bringing the whole family together—are a cultural construct that you’ve been suckered into! And do you really need a pool, or is that just another status symbol that will boost your self-image and your self-worth as a man, and provider as a husband and a father—or rather, in what America tells you that you should be as those things?”
Religion does the same thing. It holds up an image of what a Christian should be: An idealized, romanticized, impossible-to-live-up-to superman (or superwoman). It’s an image that millions of well-meaning and sincere people think they have to squeeze themselves into every day, and they beat themselves up when they ultimately fail to do so. Because after all, the only thing that matters is getting to Heaven to spend eternity with Jesus, at any cost—even if that cost is a lifetime of misery.
So Clark Griswold… you’re doing it wrong.