Last week, my wife made me sit through “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
For 34 years, I avoided this movie. Thirty-four glorious and wonderful years.
And I’ll have you know, it takes a lot of energy to evade that freakin’ movie because it’s everywhere. You can’t swing a string of Christmas lights without hitting a TV playing that moldy oldie this time of year.
“Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
We watched because Megan is playing the lead female role, Mary (Hatch) Bailey, in a community theater production, and she wanted to do some homework.
As much as I wanted to resist, I relented. I suppose I could’ve left the room, but I didn’t. I watched it with her. She wanted me to.
Happy wife, happy life, or so they say.
But I didn’t enjoy it.
I realize that may sound like blasphemy to some, so let me double down.
I slept through some of it — it’s so long, 118 minutes, though it feels much longer — but I got the gist. And I could go another 34 years before seeing it again. If ever.
No, I prefer to watch an even better movie. A funnier movie. A more quotable and relatable movie.
Yes, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
McNeill family Christmas tradition
It may not be as old as “It’s a Boring Life,” sorry, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but it’s stood the test of time since its release Dec. 1, 1989, and it’s stood the test of time in our family as every Christmas Eve in recent memory we’ve made sure to watch.
We go out for dinner. We go to church. We come home and open presents.
And then we watch the movie. THE movie. And every year, we laugh like fools, like it’s the first time we’ve ever watched it.
When I say we, I mean my mom and I because shortly after the movie starts, my dad and wife fall asleep, like clockwork. In a way, that’s their tradition.
But my mom and I laugh more than enough for the two of them.
“They had to replace my metal plate with a plastic one,” says Uncle Eddie about the plate in his head. “Every time Catherine would rev up the microwave, I’d (pee) my pants and forget who I was for about half an hour.”
Every year, I about fall off the couch cackling during that scene, but, as everyone knows, that’s just one of many memorable moments.
Here are a few more:
Uncle Eddie: “You surprised to see us, Clark?”
Clark: “Oh, Eddie … If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.”
Todd Chester: “Hey Griswold. Where do you think you’re gonna put a tree that big?”
Clark: “Bend over, and I’ll show you.”
Todd Chester: “You’ve got a lot of nerve talking to me like that, Griswold.”
Clark, while looking at Todd’s wife, Margo: “I wasn’t talking to you.”
Uncle Eddie, referring to his dog, Snots: “He’s cute ain’t he? Only problem is, he’s got a little bit a Mississippi leg hound in ‘im. If the mood catches him right, he’ll grab your leg and just go to town. You don’t want him around if you’re wearing short pants, if you know what I mean. Word of warning, though, if he does lay into ya, it’s best to just let ‘im finish.”
Of course, there’s the scene where Uncle Eddie is emptying his RV’s chemical toilet into the sewer. I’ll spare you the quote, but if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.
Then, there’s the rant after Clark gets his “Christmas bonus,” which wasn’t what he was expecting.
Though the jelly of the month club is the gift that keeps on giving, according to Uncle Eddie.
It’s certainly a worthy and memorable tradition for our family. And, in a way, it reminds me of Christmases growing up.
Memories of Christmases past
Back when I was a little guy, I can remember many a Christmas Eve spent brimming with anticipation as we packed the car and made our way toward the little town of Compton, Ill.
The next stop, 2 1/2 hours later, would be Immanuel Lutheran Church for the candlelight Christmas Eve service with the extended Johnson family, among other holiday revelers. Singing songs. Hearing the Christmas story. Trying really hard to be extremely careful with a lit candle, all the while hoping the little white disk did its intended job and stopped the burning wax from reaching my fingers.
Then it was back into the teeth of the cold winter winds to our cars, which by then were just as frigid, to head down the road to Grandma Johnson’s house, where some of my fondest Christmas memories originated. Remembrances of being greeted not by my given name, but by “Jar-head.” Seeing cousins I hadn’t seen since summer. Telling stories of Christmases past. Laughing at all the jokes. Playing games. Eating great food.
Sure there were presents involved, but that wasn’t the entirety of it. Not by a long shot.
Sooner than we’d like, however, the house would empty as the individual families would make their way back home. One to nearby Mendota. The other just down the road from Grandma’s place.
Then it was just us McNeills and Grandma as we settled in for our long winter’s nap.
My parents would stay up for a little while and exchange their presents and get ready for Santa Claus to deliver all of his Christmas goodies.
By then, I was just trying to get to sleep. Basically killing time as I waited for the earliest possible moment to get up. Roughly about 6 a.m., perhaps earlier — you’d have to ask my parents — up I was to see all that Santa had to deliver.
Later that day, the Christmas tradition would be complete with a stop in Mendota at my Uncle Jim and Aunt Julia’s house for another happy family dinner.
Looking to the future
Perhaps that’s why I love “Christmas Vacation” so much. It helps me keep those great memories alive, while embracing the new.
God willing, there’s going to come a time when Megan and I will host our children and grandchildren as we begin our family traditions.
Who knows, maybe Clark W. Griswold will grace our TV screen as we pop in that DVD, and I’ll look back and smile.
Merry Christmas, everyone.