One of those rare movies that so far outshine their predecessors that many forget they exist as part of a franchise at all, Christmas Vacation has been delighting audiences since the late ’80s. Featuring the brilliantly dysfunctional (and festive) Griswold family, it tells the story of a man intent on delivering a Big Family ChristmasTM. Led by Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold (reprising his role from previous Vacation movies), Christmas Vacation also features Beverly D’Angelo, Johnny Galecki, Juliette Lewis, Randy Quaid, Brian Doyle-Murray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Doris Roberts in an all-star comedy cast that hints at the film’s impressive longevity.

In the years since its release, Christmas Vacation has found a place in the seasonal rotation and is often cited on lists of the best Christmas movies to watch each year in December. This is more than a simple stroke of luck: Christmas Vacation is a work of comedic brilliance. Coupled with the seasonal appeal that enables repeated annual viewings, it’s no wonder that the film has proven to be the most successful of the Vacation series.

Christmas Vacation Perfectly Combines Christmas & Comedy

Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Like countless other Christmas movies, Christmas Vacation is steeped in traditional festive imagery. There’s snow, turkey, and an obscene amount of Christmas lights (not quite Deck the Halls levels, but still) – in other words, all the trimmings that one could possibly hope for in the festive entertainment feast that is December. This makes it a logical choice for Christmas viewing because it has all the trappings of tradition, but it does one key thing that makes it so beloved: it doesn’t take any of it too seriously.

Instead of showing reverence for the Christmas traditions it displays, Christmas Vacation makes use of them for what they are. They aren’t there to make the audience feel festive, but rather because they’re a symptom of Clark’s madness. The Griswold family is having a big traditional Christmas, and the audience is along for the ride. That’s where Christmas Vacation‘s comedy really finds its feet, in using Clark’s obsessive drive to deliver a family Christmas as a means of both including and entertaining its audience.

Christmas Comedy That’s Both Wacky & Original Is A Winning Format

Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Though its abundance of Christmas movie staples might fool you, Christmas Vacation doesn’t follow a traditional path with its comedy. It’s not blatantly innovative or original, instead taking a much more subtle approach to its characteristic blend of comedic elements. It uses the same tried-and-tested National Lampoon tone, but it does so with an added sense of merriment that really gels with its holiday feel.

In many ways, Christmas Vacation has comedy for everyone. There’s slapstick, absurd humor, foul-mouthed tirades, and smutty double-entendres – essentially, it covers all its bases, and hits the mark practically every time. The sheer amount of wacky hurdles Clark is forced to clear on his way to a happy family Christmas also gives Christmas Vacation a more subtle, relatable sense of humor that anyone who has entertained their family for the holidays will undoubtedly associate with. Having its characters contend with basic familial turbulence while trying to establish traditions and keep everyone happy is something that essentially goes hand-in-hand with Christmas itself, making the film an absurd but startlingly realistic window into our own feelings about the festive period.

Johnny Galecki, Beverly D'Angelo, Chevy Chase, and Juliette Lewis in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

It may not seem like the most intelligent or well-considered movie ever made, but National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation comes with a deceptive depth of subtlety. Its story and tone are far more calculated than one might initially assume, if only because it’s such a light-hearted and deliberately ridiculous piece of cinema. Unlike some Christmas movies that have unintended bad messages, there’s an overwhelming sense of fun that underpins all of the stress and chaos, making Christmas Vacation an incredible approximation of the season itself that transcends generational barriers.

Rating: 85%

Summary: By gently poking fun at the excessive amount of Christmas traditions that festive movies tend to push on audiences, Christmas Vacation delivers an insightful piece of comedic storytelling that’s as hilarious as it is heartwarming.

Highlights: The delightful absurdity of Cousin Eddie, Aunt Bethany, and the “SQUIRREL!” scene all stand out as some of Christmas Vacation‘s finest aspects.