In “Christmas With the Kranks,” Mom and Dad decide to skip their traditional holiday traditions and go on a Caribbean cruise instead. When their wayfaring daughter decides to return home at the last minute, the Kranks have to hustle to get all the Kristmas Krap in place, thus adding to the need for heavily spiked eggnog.
Ah, there’s nothing like the holidays to add stress to the family dynamic. Clusters of relatives who haven’t been together in up to a year deal with raised yet rarely met expectations of happiness and joy, tying comedy and tragedy together with a bright shiny bow. Small wonder it’s been film fodder for decades.
The quintessential Christmas movie, of course, is 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but despite its sacks of warm fuzzies, the Bailey family is no Brady Bunch. Pa Bailey is sad that neither of his kids wants to take over the family business. George lives forever in the shadow of his younger brother, Harry (that’s the thanks he gets for saving Harry’s life as a kid). Drunk Uncle Billy almost buries the company with his absent-mindedness. And maybe George wouldn’t have been in such dire straits if he hadn’t had all those darn kids, breeding well beyond his financial means (same goes for those Cratchits, by Dickens!).
Ironically, one of the least jolly of all Christmas families is the Donners. No, not the cannibalistic pioneers of 1846, but the small brood of one of Santa’s sleigh-pullers in the 1964 Rankin/Bass TV special, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Not only is Rudolph’s dad a sexist (telling his wife that searching for their lost son is “man’s work”), but he’s ashamed of his kid, just because he’s different. You’d expect Santa to preach a little more tolerance, but amazingly, he’s equally prejudiced against old neon nose — at least until Rudolph’s schnoz suits his purpose. Sheesh!
While 1983’s “A Christmas Story” is very much a period piece (set in the early 1940s in the Midwest), the Parkers are as timeless a family as any ever portrayed onscreen. They don’t exactly fight as much as bicker. Even when Mom uses up all the glue on purpose, the Old Man doesn’t throw hurtful epithets at her, preferring the less hostile “Not a finger!” as his retort. Siblings Randy and Ralphie may battle to get to the bathroom, but they’ve got each other’s backs. And while swearing is never tolerated from the kids, it’s OK if they lose it and get into a knockdown drag-out with the school bully. The utterly realistic and ultimately heartwarming portrayal of the family dynamic is one of the reasons this movie has become a classic.
Perhaps the least dysfunctional family of all time (at least in their sitcom incarnation) was the Brady Bunch. The amazingly campy 1988 TV movie “A Very Brady Christmas” finds the now-extended clan reuniting for the first time in years for a huge, suburban southern California Christmas. But it turns out that each and every Brady kid is miserable for one reason or another (race-car driver Bobby, for instance, hasn’t told the parents his vocation). It takes the near death of dear ol’ Dad and the glorious vocalizing of Mom to remind them all what Xmas is really about. But Bobby is still creepy.
It’s hard to find anyone in the history of film more spirited than Clark W. Griswold, the paterfamilias in the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” series. In 1989’s greatly underrated “Christmas Vacation,” Clark (Chevy Chase) doggedly and desperately attempts to conjure up an old-fashioned Christmas both for and in spite of his aggravating extended clan. His kids are sulky, his wife isn’t always supportive, his in-laws think he’s a loser, his uncle incinerates the tree and his aunt feeds him Jell-O with cat food. And then there’s mooching, chemical toilet-emptying, Dickie-wearing cousin Eddie. But Clark is a Christmas Iron Man. Clinging to tradition, he struggles to maintain the spirit of the season while doing battle with attack squirrels, booby-trapped attics, yuppie neighbors, an uncooperative string of lights, pine sap, dust-dry turkey and a Scrooge-like boss.
Still, we’d rather be a Griswold than a McCallister. “Home Alone” (1990) finds little Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) stranded in his suburban Chicago home when his family accidentally flies to Paris for Christmas without him. This mostly unbearable fable falls flat not because the family seems even more awful than yours — it’s that you don’t buy the warm fuzzies at the end, neither the McCallisters suddenly loving Kevin like kittens nor the misunderstood old man magically reuniting with his son. Considering that the family loses Kevin again in “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992), this self-absorbed group should really just stay home during the holidays.
But perhaps the most dysfunctional holiday-film family of all never even appears onscreen. How horrible are the parents who leave the (unnamed) Kid alone with his zombie-like grandmother in “Bad Santa” (2003)? It’s not just that they abandoned him; there was an obvious lack of parenting skills invested in this sad, chubby wreck who finds the drunk, swearing, filthy faux-Kringle Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) worthy of love and respect as the true Santa Claus. Those Donners are starting to look positively cuddly!
Perhaps one reason that holiday family time can be so stressful is that a lot of us are thrust back into roles we haven’t played in years: We become the children again. Grown men and women have to sit at the kids’ table, our stockings are hung by the chimney with care, filled with toys and candy that we really don’t need. Aunts pinch our cheeks and remark about how big we’ve gotten, even if we stopped growing 10 years ago. Parents are generally reluctant to see their children grow up, and the countless memories of the family at Christmastime are often the most indelible.
Watching fictional broods during the holidays can be a much-needed reminder that beneath the stress and the squabbling, nobody loves us like our family does. We just sometimes need a little jingle bell upside the head to regain some perspective. And while it’s fashionable to whine about the holidays, for most of us, our true feelings about the season are sparkly and bright. Don’t forget that both the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge ended up loving Christmas as much as Clark Griswold.
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