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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Seel

Christmas: Guilt-Giving, Toxic Positivity, and commercialism at its finest.

Unlike many people I know, I look forward to Christmas all year round. This is not because of getting gifts or even because of amazing food that I only eat this time of year (*cough* peanut butter fudge *cough*), but because of the happy feeling I get thinking about good memories I have from growing up. Nothing is ever quite as magic as dreaming about what Santa would bring on Christmas eve, but I still catch glimpses of it from time to time. The decorations and lights on the trees still bring me that spark of joy, even if it's not as dramatic as when I was little.


Judging by the opinions of most people I know, I'm not with the majority. Many feel that obligatory gift-giving, forced time with family, indulgences that you later feel guilty about, and the expectation of excessive spending is stress-inducing at best. A perfect example of what causes so many to dislike the holiday season is the movie "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation".

If you identify as a Millenial or a "kid of the 90's", then chances are you've seen the title film of today's rant: "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation". It is possible that even as you read this title, you start quoting Cousin Eddie "Shitter's full!" or Clark Griswold himself "We're gonna make this the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby danced with Danny f*****g Kay!" This movie to me so perfectly illustrates why many people can't stand the holiday season, and yet every year we keep celebrating the holiday in the same way. Which, much like Clark's comically large Christmas tree, is the definition of insanity.

From the beginning of the movie, we already see a few of the issues that will be at play for the rest of the movie. The only people excited about this adventure to cut down a Christmas Tree are Clark and his wife, Ellen. Clark animatedly sings a Christmas carol (loudly) as he drives, while the kids try their best to not look nauseated or homicidal in the back seat. Clark doesn't stop there, the entire drive he disregards his family's comfort and safety for the sake of getting back at another driver that was tailgating. He ignores his daughter's complaints of numbness in her extremities to the point that she literally can't speak or move her eyes. (Granted, yes, that is an exaggeration for comedic effect). Clark wants what Clark wants. Do you have that person in your family? The "their way or the highway" person? The person whose mood dictates how this party is going to go? Yeah-that is Clark. Reason number one is that this Christmas day has been doomed for the Griswolds since the first scene: this particular Christmas is really about making one person happy at the expense of everybody else.

The expectation has always been that the holidays are about spending time with friends and family. In recent years, the idea of your "chosen family" over blood relatives is a more comfortable concept. Well for the Griswolds, that is a completely foreign concept (at least in this movie), because it appears that both Clark and Helen don't particularly even like their parents, grandparents, or cousin Eddie in the slightest. Helen tries to talk to Clark about the idea of having the entire "fam damnily" there for Christmas, and Clark explains "All my life I wanted to have a big family Christmas" (refer, to point 1). Helen has all kinds of good reasons why this is a bad idea, but Clark does not care. Well when the entire family arrives, it only takes a couple of minutes with them for Clark to want some space. He explains to Helen-whose face says way more than words could-that "Yeah well, this (annoying relatives) is what Christmas is all about". He then promptly hurries outside to work on the lights for the house. By the first time the whole family is having dinner, Helen just spells it out plainly "I don't know what to say except that it's Christmas and we're all in misery." Why do we choose to hang out with people we know are toxic? For Clark, there is the expectation that family should be there. So even when Cousin Eddie shows up with his entire family and their trailer out front, Clark is forced to take his own medicine. He can't stand Eddie, but he's still family. And here is reason 2 why the Griswold's Christmas is on a countdown to destruction: they're busy living up to expectations and doing what they "should" do, instead of choosing to do what they know is best for their family.

And here is where things start to get a bit more personal. Remember how I mentioned earlier how I loved Christmas and have so many good memories of it growing up? Well, Clark does too. It's easy to see, so far, how it would appear I'm making Clark out to be the bad guy. Don't get me wrong, I do think he's destroying his and everyone else's Christmas, but I don't think his motivations are cruel. In fact, the person that Clark is hurting most in this entire movie is himself. Clark is obsessed with the idea of having the old-fashioned Christmas that he had with his own family in the 60s. He talks repeatedly about things that he and his parents did, and after getting himself trapped in the attic, we can see the kinds of things he remembers fondly about this holiday from his family movies. From the very beginning of the movie, Clark makes it clear that he wants to do this giant Christmas celebration for the family. It is his entire motivation for the rest of the film. He wants his family to be happy and to enjoy the holiday as he did when he was younger. The imagery is too perfect: Clark is standing in a hole that he just created in the floor. The window in the attic is stuck open and so it's very cold. He is absolutely freezing and miserable as he stands there. And yet, he is smiling because his mind is stuck thinking about the past and how fun things were. He can't see that by chasing memories of how thing's used to be, he's making himself miserable in the present.

The problem is that people change-and often, and it's not always for the better. We all change and change is perfectly normal and healthy. Managing expectations about people's behavior and setting healthy boundaries (say, only have people over for dinner instead of multiple days or maybe you go to their house so you can leave if you have to) can salvage families. Forced socializing with people you can't stand seems like the third ingredient in a recipe for a ruined holiday.

Despite multiple demonstrations of the Griswolds' misery with their family being at their house, Clark, Helen, and the kids force a smile onto their faces and play along. Everyone pretends they're happy and enjoying the holiday together. Even up until Christmas Eve night, Clark has a huge smile plastered on his face. Though this expression does get increasingly maniacal throughout the evening. Everyone pretends that the burned-to-char turkey is great, the grandfather who says cruel and inappropriate things is not wearing a toupe, and that they are all so thrilled to be together on Christmas. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. Reason number 4 that this holiday is doomed: everybody knows that they're all miserable, but nobody will say anything about it. During the holidays this may sound like a very familiar scene to a lot of people. Toxic positivity is when we all try to stay on the "bright side" of things and "accentuate the positive" even when it is clear there really isn't anything positive about the situation. Dishonesty doesn't do anything but invalidate the emotions and experiences of others. Everybody knows this Christmas is exploding, and forcing ourselves to smile about the fact that grandma wrapped up her cat is not going to help anybody...least of all grandma's cat.

And the last reason (as I see it) that Griswold's Christmas was not only doomed but doomed to repeat itself unless things change, is the disregard for finances for the sake of extravagant gift-giving. Now, I am no Scrooge. I believe in giving-give generously what you are able to. But so many people go into debt at Christmas for the sake of keeping up appearances or meeting expectations. Clark puts a down payment on a swimming pool for his family despite the fact that he did not know what his Christmas bonus would be that year. He is not alone-many people each year take out short-term loans in anticipation of spending at Christmas. I can remember years (with some embarrassment and guilt) that I was disappointed if we were told my father hadn't gotten a huge bonus that year, so we should manage expectations at Christmas. Today I can see how more stuff is not always better. And the anxiety that comes with worrying about financial security in addition to getting someone that "perfect gift" is just not worth it. Clark's worry about being able to pay for this huge gift for his family was simmering in the background the entire movie. It was this thing hanging over the entire plot "will Clark get the money to install the swimming pool?". By the time Clark receives the Christmas "gift" of a jelly of the month club membership, the audience is as angry as Clark is when he loses his proverbial shit in front of his family. Christmas Vacation is not the only movie to emphasize the financial stress and commercialism of the holiday. The Charlie Brown Christmas Special demonstrates through Lucy's obsession with the Christmas play, the other children's disappointment over the less-than-perfect Christmas tree, and the house-decorating competition Snoopy signed up for, that people's expectations for the holiday are to do things big and expensive no matter the financial or emotional cost.

Ok. Ok, I get it, "Geez, Maureen, this is kind of depressing" I should offer some kind of solution to the problem that is the modern American Christmas. Well, person who chose to read this far. First, HEY! Wow, thanks for reading. If you comment I'd be even more impressed. Yeah-pandering. Whatever. It's my website. AND-you'll be glad you read this far, because here is my suggestion for a better and more joyful holiday season this year:

  1. Celebrate with your chosen family. I learned the hard way over the last few years that just because you're related to a person doesn't mean that you have to be part of their life. Sometimes people part ways or you outgrow one another. Of course, they're family, and if something happened, I'd be there for them. But you don't have to go out of your way to subject yourself to people you know are hurtful or toxic. I spent this past Thanksgiving with my very best friends and chosen family. I can't think of another Thanksgiving that I had as much fun. It is that way every year. On purpose.

  2. Know that person in the family who has to have things their way? The person that gives you the old guilt trip when you don't go to their house for the holidays or suggests you cook the turkey another way. I give you permission to not be around them. I know how it feels. I "should" be there for them, the holiday is so important to them. But what about you? You're not nothing. Your feelings matter. If Helen had said to Clark "No, Clark. I do not want all of our family here for days before Christmas. That sounds like a recipe for crazy-town and I do not want it.", is it possible things may have gone differently? Well, yeah. Is it possible that Clark may have gotten very upset about not having his perfect Christmas? Maybe. But in the end, we're not responsible for how other people respond or act.

  3. Don't force a smile. It is ok to not be ok, especially this time of year. The holidays aren't a happy time for everybody. Many suffer from seasonal depression or have lost a loved one. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that my mother passed away from an accidental overdose on Christmas Eve ten years ago this December. Ignoring the problem and embracing Toxic Positivity does nothing but perpetuate negative cycles that ruin the holiday for not just you, but everyone. Feel your feelings and talk with those you trust about them.

  4. Enjoy the holiday within your means. Remember that the best parts of Clark's memories of Christmas were not about gifts. It was about doing things with people he cared about. My husband and I now give only one gift to one another and set a budget. Most of the things I have learned to enjoy about the holiday are free or inexpensive: making cookies at home, walking around neighborhoods to see the Christmas lights, listening to Christmas music, sipping on hot chocolate while watching a Christmas movie, exploring the Christmas market in Columbus Circle and seeing the Christmas Tree at Rockafeller Center-all inexpensive or free.

Long story short, don't rob yourself of the joy of this time of year by trying to live up to expectations-whether they're ones others have for you or ones you have for yourself. And remember those this Christmas that don't have even some of these inexpensive or free things. Many people struggle not just with mental health and depression at this time of year, but with hunger, cold, and lack of basic necessities. If you feel open to the idea and generous and if you want to really feel what Christmas is about, check out one of the charities listed below where you can make this time of year happier for someone else in real need of some holiday cheer.

Marine Toys for Tots (find your local donation center)

The Salvation Army (or look for the red buckets and bell ringers!

Prison Fellowship

Or check in with Meals on Wheels or a local shelter or food bank. Many people are in need this time of year.

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