National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a 1989 American Christmas comedy film directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik. It is the third installment in National Lampoon’s Vacation film series, and was written by John Hughes, based on his short story in National Lampoon magazine, “Christmas ’59”. The film stars Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo and Randy Quaid, with Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki as the Griswold children Audrey and Rusty, respectively.
Since its release in 1989, Christmas Vacation has often been labeled as a modern Christmas classic. It is widely regarded as the best sequel of the Vacation series and the only sequel to have spawned its own direct sequel: a 2003 made-for-TV release entitled National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.
With Christmas only a few weeks away, Chicago resident Clark Griswold decides it is time to get a Christmas tree. He gathers his wife Ellen, daughter Audrey, and son Rusty and drives out to the country where he picks out a huge tree. Realizing too late that they didn’t bring any tools to cut the tree down, they are forced to uproot it instead, before driving home with the tree strapped to the roof of their car.
Soon after, both Clark’s and Ellen’s parents arrive to spend Christmas, but their bickering quickly begins to annoy the family. Clark, however, maintains a positive attitude, determined to have a “fun old-fashioned family Christmas.” He covers the house’s entire exterior with 25,000 twinkle lights, which fail to work at first, as he has accidentally wired them through his garage’s light switch. When they finally come on, they temporarily cause a citywide power shortage and create chaos for Clark’s snobby neighbors, Todd and Margo. While standing on the front lawn admiring the lights, Clark is shocked to see Ellen’s cousin Catherine and her husband Eddie, as they arrive unannounced with their children, Rocky and Ruby Sue, and their Rottweiler dog, Snots. Eddie later admits that they are living in the RV they drove, as he is broke and has been forced to sell his home. Clark offers to buy gifts for Eddie’s kids so they can still enjoy Christmas.
Clark begins to wonder why his boss Frank Shirley has not given him his yearly bonus, which he desperately needs to replace an advance payment he has made to install a swimming pool. After a disastrous Christmas Eve dinner, he finally receives an envelope from a company messenger, who had overlooked it the day before. Instead of the presumed bonus, the envelope contains a free year’s membership for the Jelly of the Month Club. This prompts Clark to snap and go into a tirade about Frank, and out of anger, requests that he be delivered to the house so Clark can insult him to his face.
Eddie takes the request literally, drives to Frank’s mansion, and kidnaps him. Clark confronts him about the cancellation of the employees’ Christmas bonuses. Meanwhile, Frank’s wife, Helen, calls the police, and a SWAT team storms the Griswold house and holds everyone at gunpoint. Frank decides not to press charges and explains the situation to his wife and the authorities, who scold him for his decision to scrap the bonuses, and decides to reinstate them (with Clark getting a bonus of last year’s amount plus 20%).
The family head outside, with Rocky and Ruby Sue believing they see Santa Claus in the distance. Clark tells them it’s actually the Christmas Star and that he finally realizes what the holiday means to him. Uncle Lewis says the light is coming from the sewage treatment plant; reminding Clark that Eddie had been dumping his sewage into a storm drain. Before Clark can stop him, Uncle Lewis tosses a lit match, triggering an explosion. Aunt Bethany starts singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the whole family and the SWAT team join in, gazing at Clark’s Santa Claus and reindeer set burning and flying into the distance. The entire family and the SWAT team members then celebrate inside the house, while Clark and Ellen happily share a Christmas kiss.
- Chevy Chase as Clark W. “Sparky” Griswold, Jr.
- Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold
- Juliette Lewis as Audrey Griswold
- Johnny Galecki as Russ Griswold
- John Randolph as Clark W. Griswold, Sr.
- Diane Ladd as Nora Griswold
- E.G. Marshall as Art Smith
- Doris Roberts as Frances Smith
- Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie Johnson
- Miriam Flynn as Cousin Catherine Johnson
- Cody Burger as Rocky Johnson
- Ellen Hamilton Latzen as Ruby Sue Johnson
- William Hickey as Uncle Lewis
- Mae Questel as Aunt Bethany
- Sam McMurray as Bill
- Nicholas Guest as Todd Chester
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Margo Chester
- Brian Doyle-Murray as Frank Shirley
- Natalia Nogulich as Helen Shirley
- Nicolette Scorsese as Mary
- Alexander Folk as Swat Officer
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation originated from a short story by writer John Hughes called “Christmas ’59,” which was published in the December 1980 issue of National Lampoon magazine. “The studio came to me and begged for another one, and I only agreed because I had a good story to base it on,” said Hughes. “But those movies have become little more than Chevy Chase vehicles.” Director Chris Columbus initially was to direct the film, but due to a personality clash between him and Chevy Chase, Columbus left the film and was replaced by Chechik. Hughes eventually gave Columbus the script to Home Alone.
Principal photography began on March 27, 1989 in Summit County, Colorado, with footage shot in Silverthorne, Breckenridge, and Frisco. From there the production moved to Warner Bros. Ranch Facilities in Burbank, California, where the set of the Griswold family’s house and street is located.
The musical score for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was composed by Angelo Badalamenti. It is the only installment of the Vacation film series not to include Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road”. In its place is a song entitled “Christmas Vacation” that was written for the movie by the husband-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and performed by Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers fame. The song was covered in 2007 by High School Musical star Monique Coleman for the 2007 Christmas album Disney Channel Holiday.
Despite several popular songs being present in the film, no official soundtrack album was released. In 1999, a bootleg copy containing music featured in the film along with select cuts of dialogue dubbed as the “10th Anniversary Limited Edition” began to appear on Internet auction sites with the claim that Warner Bros. and RedDotNet had pressed 20,000 CDs for Six Flags Magic Mountain employees to sell to customers entering the park. However, while the discs were individually numbered out of 20,000, only 7,000 were sold as a part of an on demand production printed at gift shop kiosks within the park. Forums on movie music sites such as SoundtrackCollector later declared the disc to be a bootleg due to its inaccuracies. For instance, the cut “Christmas Vacation Medley” (claiming to be the work of composer Angelo Badalamenti) is really a track called “Christmas at Carnegie Hall” from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York by composer John Williams and does not actually contain any of Badalamenti’s Christmas Vacation score.
The movie debuted at #2 at the box-office while grossing $11,750,203 during the opening weekend, behind Back to the Future Part II. The movie eventually topped the box-office charts in its third week of release and remained #1 the following weekend. It went on to gross a total of $71,319,546 in the United States while showing in movie theaters.