National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has become a holiday season staple in many homes. The film, released in 1989, portrays the misadventures of the Griswold family as the main character Clark tries to create the perfect family Christmas.
While the film is genuinely funny, there’s something more profound that appeals to us. Perhaps it’s the fact that a ‘perfect Christmas’ doesn’t exist. Despite the image portrayed in advertisements and formula holiday films, when real families get together there’s bound to be conflict. The concept of an ideal celebration, when compared to what most of us really experience, is rather laughable.
Experts conservatively estimate that one person in 20 lacks empathy and is overly critical of others. If we add to this the polarizing perspectives on various topics in the world today, we can expect that many of our gatherings will include some heated exchanges.
It’s difficult to exclude family members from our gatherings because you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives. As Clark’s wife Ellen says as she lights a cigarette, “It’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
So what do we do to avoid a Clark Griswold meltdown and having a SWAT team invade our home?
One point to consider is our personal well-being. It’s very easy to over-consume food and drink that will leave our bodies depleted. We also tend to stay up too late and wear ourselves out. But to deal with difficult people and difficult situations, we need to be in top form. Exercise, eat healthy, meditate or do whatever is required to maintain balance.
Remember as well that the negative words of difficult family members reflect the discomfort they feel within themselves. Though it can be very challenging, we need to realize that what they say and do has nothing to do with us. If we take the bait and engage them in an argument, we’re fuelling their dysfunction. It may be better to simply say, “I don’t appreciate that perspective,” and leave the room to wash the dishes or to let the children show us their new toys. Or it may be best to say nothing at all.
We can do many other things to distance ourselves emotionally from difficult people. What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger if we keep the right perspective. Regardless of how bad we think our situation is, things could be worse, and we can always find something for which to be thankful. Maybe the food was particularly good, or perhaps we made a child smile.
Christmas family gatherings aren’t about our own desires. Those of us who are adults are helping to create memories for the children and young people in attendance. If we can give them a happy memory, that’s very significant. There’s a beautiful scene in Christmas Vacation where Clark watches old films from his childhood. Regardless of the current reality, a happy memory is a joy forever.
Keep in mind that the holiday gathering will end. Tomorrow will be better and we can commend ourselves for making it through a difficult event with our sense of integrity intact. Even if we lose our patience at some point, we can reflect on the lessons we’ve learned.
The ideal Christmas may only exist in Clark Griswold’s imagination. What does exist is the ability to choose how we’re going to respond at our family gatherings, no matter how dysfunctional they may be. And the freedom to make that choice may be the greatest gift of all.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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