Is ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ Based on a True Story?

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Christmas Vacation is based on a short story by John Hughes called “Christmas ’59” that featured in National Lampoon.
  • Many elements from the short story were incorporated into the film, including the Christmas tree mishaps and an influx of family members.
  • Some parts of the story were changed or removed, such as the character Xgung Wo, due to racist content.


National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is, first and foremost, a veritable Christmas classic. It also marks a major course correct for the Vacation franchise after the debacle of National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and is arguably the best of the five Vacation films. The movie is packed with instantly relatable, if highly exaggerated, moments, and hilarious scenes that have since become iconic, much like the first movie, National Lampoon’s Vacation. Christmas Vacation may be relatable, but there is no way that the film is anything more than a fully fictional, fully original Christmas comedy offering, right? Well, kinda sorta. See, the chaotic Griswold Christmas actually is rooted in reality. John Hughes‘ reality.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

As the holidays approach, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to have a perfect family Christmas, so he pesters his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), and children, as he tries to make sure everything is in line, including the tree and house decorations. However, things go awry quickly. His hick cousin, Eddie (Randy Quaid), and his family show up unplanned and start living in their camper on the Griswold property. Even worse, Clark’s employers renege on the holiday bonus he needs.

Release Date
December 1, 1989

Director
Jeremiah S. Chechik

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
97 minutes

Main Genre
Comedy

Genres
Comedy

Writers
John Hughes


John Hughes’ Short Stories Inspired Both ‘Vacation’ and ‘Christmas Vacation’

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is loosely-based on a short story written by Hughes called “Christmas ’59.” which appeared in the December 1980 issue of National Lampoon. The story is a follow-up to the Hughes story that inspired the original film, “Vacation ’58.” The short story, at its root, is Hughes’ childhood memories of a family Christmas in 1959. Now how true the short story is to actual events is debatable, since there are no specific accounts of any differences or exaggerations. Although the fact that it was written for National Lampoon, the adult-oriented humor magazine which at the time was wildly popular (thanks to the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House), would suggest that the term “loosely-based” is quite accurate.

“Christmas ’59” is told from Hughes’ point of view as a young child, and the very first sentence gives a glimpse into what is in store: “All in all it was a pretty exciting Christmas, what with the relatives and the presents and the fun and the cops and Aunt Hazel’s dog blowing up in our living room.” Like a character in another Christmas classic, Hughes wants a BB gun, but knows it would be over mom’s dead body. He and his sisters are waiting for their grandparents to arrive, which they do after having raced “from two different houses in two different cities” to get home first. Grandma and Grandpa Swenson were accompanied by Xgung Wo, a college student from Thailand whom they had befriended – more on that momentarily. The arrival of his aunt, uncle, and three cousins prompted his mom to lay out what the sleeping arrangements would be. When his father arrived home from work, he showed off his bonus – a cigarette lighter with his name, spelled incorrectly, on it.

Nevertheless, it was Christmas Eve… without a Christmas tree. By the time his dad got around to getting one, the only ones left were overpriced and under-greened. The solution? One of the pine trees in the front yard, which he promptly cut down and took inside. Not only the tree, mind you, but the bird that was in it as well. And it only got worse from there. A pathetic turkey, missing Christmas lights, old Aunt Hazel, the dachshund she inadvertently wrapped up as a present, and said dachshund exploding after eating the Christmas lights. But with everyone gathered outside, they set their sights on a bright star in the sky, and everything seemed right and peaceful again. Except for the fact that it was an airplane.

What Was Different in ‘Christmas Vacation?’

After reading “Christmas ’59”, it’s clear that John Hughes’ script for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation borrowed many elements from the short story, some outright and some tweaked for the big screen. Clark (Chevy Chase) did get a Christmas tree – two, in fact. The first came from a family outing to the country to find the perfect tree, the scene that opens the film and foreshadows the debacle to come when Clark forgets the proper tools to cut it down. The acquisition of the second tree is similar to the story, with Clark cutting down a tree from the front yard after the first tree goes up in flames. The never-ending influx of family throughout the film mirrors that of the story, more or less, with senile Aunt Hazel represented by two characters, senile old Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel) and cranky Uncle Lewis (William Hickey). The bird in the Christmas tree became a scene-stealing squirrel for the movie. Speaking of birds, the turkey, or more appropriately, the smoking turkey carcass, remains the same. And the gift-wrapped dog, which came to a blackly humorous demise, was switched out for a cat.

Two parts from the short story, in particular, faced two different fates on the way to the screen, one a significant upgrade and one that was dropped altogether. Clark’s Christmas bonus, which in the story is a throwaway bit about a personalized cigarette lighter, impacts the events of the film in a much more prevalent way. In the film, Clark’s Christmas bonus is meant to cover the cost of a swimming pool in the Griswolds’ backyard, a surprise gift from Clark that is his rock amidst the chaos of the holiday. The actual bonus, a one-year membership for the Jelly of the Month club, sends Clark into one of the all-time great Hollywood tirades. The part of the short story that didn’t make it has to do with the Thai student Xgung Wo mentioned before. He is a bigger part of the short story than alluded to here, but it’s best for all that he wasn’t included in the film. The reality is that not only is Wo a stereotyped Asian character with “huge beaver teeth”, but his speech in the story is so horribly racist that it’s deplorable to believe it was ever printed, let alone from the mind that gave the world Pretty in Pink and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

As flawed as the short story may be, regardless of how true any of it is, it still led to the creation of a Christmas movie that has graced the screen of many a family during the holiday season. But if you are looking for a great, 100% true story, the making of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is an utterly fascinating one.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is currently streaming on Hulu in the U.S.

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