Just This Side of the Nuthouse

Our family decorates for Christmas the first weekend of December. After the lights are up outside and the tree is decorated (inside), we all settle in for our annual viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This is our only real family Christmas movie. We watch the other standard movies—It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard, and some others–but watching Chevy Chase spend time with kith and kin has become part of our tradition.

For the most part, my boys and I stop watching Miracle after the opening drunk Santa Clause scene and I spend most of It’s a Wonderful Life mocking the Jimmy Stewart character and complaining about the flawed philosophical self- importance the movie lends to our individual lives. I’m always really bothered by the scene where Donna Reed’s character becomes a lonely librarian without George’s love. (Really, I yell! Her life was meaningless and empty without him? And she became a mousy librarian? She wasn’t mousy before they met and married!)

Each year, I also remind my kids of the Saturday Night Live skit with Dana Carvey where they attack Mr. Potter. “I don’t want the money, Mr. Potter. I want a piece of you!” Inspired skit-making.

It’s worth noting that our holidays are never quite as crazy as the Griswald’s, but the essential element of the movie strikes me as more relevant than Frank Capra’s ideas. For Clark (Chevy Chase), expectations can never equal reality and I think in too many lives we see the same problem (without the humorous result). I’ve watched, consistently, as people compare the moment they are in with the moment they wish was taking place.

The holiday’s become stressful because that expectation, that desire to have “the happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye,” is necessarily in conflict with the reality of human behavior. (By the way, after a particularly nasty teenage meltdown when we were supposed to go visit with some people, my son stomped down the hall, slammed his door, and made it pretty clear he was asserting some intense obstinate defiance. I walked down with an outer calm hiding that rage only a teenager can produce, sat on his bed, put my arm around him—his shoulder not his neck—and quoted me a little Christmas Vacation. While I don’t like to cuss in front of the kids, it broke the hostility and got us out the door. Inspired parenting. Calm. Funny. And, trust me, rare.)

During the holidays, so much of our behavior is measured against these classic holiday films. When my wife and I first starting illuminating the exterior of our house, she wanted white lights, green wreaths, and all those sophisticated accoutrements we see in holiday movies. The inside of the house needed to have that soft glow of a fire, holiday lights, and the Norman Rockwell haze of normalcy.

Christmas morning, our kids would rise, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, toddle down to the tree and calmly open one gift at a time.

Yeah. Not so much. And there is the rub. What we like so much about Chevy Chase is his unending desire and optimism that things can be perfect. They are on the threshold of hell, but with a chain saw, some duct tape, and rum-laced eggnog, we can get through the holidays. The key, it seems to me, is latching on to the moment in which we exist and stop searching for the moment we wish existed.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Just This Side of the Nuthouse

  1. sagescenery says:

    Love your last sentence!!

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