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Christmas Vacation: 25 Years Young

Growing up in the eighties, I was completely enamoured with the Griswolds.  I remember my parents and brothers guffawing through repeated viewings of the original National Lampoons Vacation on VHS (or was it Betamax?)

Walley World or Bust!
Walley World or Bust!

Then there was the time mom took us to see the sequel European Vacation and  ten-year-old me was mortified to be sitting next to my mother while a busty German girl bared it all to Rusty. Even though the second installment of the franchise hasn’t held up as well as the others have, we loved European Vacation in its time. I can still sing the Pig in a Poke theme song, if that counts for anything!

The Griswolds appear on Pig in a Poke
Pig in a Poke, it pays to be a glutton! Pig in a Poke, you could win all or nothin’!

So it was like icing on the proverbial fruitcake when National Lampoons Christmas Vacation came bouncing into our lives, back in 1989.  Now, twenty-five years later, it’s regarded as one of the best Christmas movies of all time… and I can truly say I’ve been a fan since the beginning! It was movie fandom that prompted me to source and sell Clark Griswold-style eggnog moose mugs online, which ultimately led to the creation of our pop culture Christmas website RetroFestive.ca.

Egg Nog Moose Cups
Got Nog? This kid models the Cousin Eddie look, complete with glass moose mug!

But back on Boxing Day 1989, no one could have forseen all of that.  My family was simply looking for a light holiday diversion when we trekked out to the local cinema, complete with crazy aunts and uncles in tow. What we discovered in National Lampoons Christmas Vacation was a pop culture treasure that would continue to make us laugh every Christmas for the next 25 years.

I was in grade nine that year, and I remember making a holiday mix tape with the Christmas Vacation theme song as its lead track. I taped the song off the radio (as we did back then) so whenever I hear it today, I can still hear Casey Kasem doing the lead in. I didn’t realize then that the Christmas Vacation theme song is sung by Mavis Staples of the storied Staple Singers. Her powerhouse vocals are also featured in the concert documentary The Last Waltz, in which she sings The Weight, backed by The Band.

Griswold Family Portrait. Vacation '59.
Griswold Family Portrait as it appears in John Hughes’ original short story, Vacation ’59 (which inspired the movie Christmas Vacation). Published in National Lampoon Magazine.

But back to The Griswolds. What is it that makes National Lampoons Christmas Vacation and the Griswold family so endearing, even after 25 years? It must have something to do with the zany cast of characters that reminds us of our own families. We all know a Clark Griswold, someone who’ll stop at nothing to make Christmas perfect for their family. And we all have that one relative who has shades of Cousin Eddie. “Save the neck for me Clark!” We can relate to Aunt Bethany wrapping up her cat just like we can relate to Audrey’s disdain for sharing a bed with her brother. “Do you sleep with your brother? Do you know how sick and twisted that is?”

Christmas Vacation is a perfect modern day Christmas movie because it doesn’t force sentimentality, it earns it. It’s packed with edgy humour, silly sight gags and hilarious one liners. “Grace? She passed away 30 years ago!” It traipses out every holiday trope, but lampoons them better than any movie has before or since.

Griswold Christmas Vacation Family Portrait

In the end, Christmas Vacation is about family. Beyond the mayhem, beyond the 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights, Clark Griswold knew that Family is what it’s all about.  I’m thankful I got to see Christmas Vacation in theatres with my family 25 years ago and I look forward to watching it with them again this year as we relive all the memories of the crazy holidays we’ve spent together.

Here’s wishing you the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby danced with Danny f***ing Kaye!


Back in Black: Who was the Real Black Bart

Remember the dream sequence in A Christmas Story when Ralphie has visions of saving his family from Black Bart? It’s a nod to the kind of 1940′s-era characters that would have pervaded young Ralphie’s imagination.

But in reality, Black Bart wasn’t just some fictional desperado.  In actual fact, the character originated in an 1870s dime novel that was loosely based on a true story. The writer called his main character Bartholomew Graham who took the name of “Black Bart” because he wore black clothes, had black long curly hair and a dense black beard. And Black Bart had real-life inspiration.

Charles Bowles was born in England around 1830 and immigrated to New York a few years later with his family.  Shortly after entering adulthood, young Charles Bowles had his name changed to Charles Boles and, in 1849, he set off for California with a cousin to find gold. Like countless others, they failed to strike it rich and returned home a few years later.  But, undaunted, Charley Boles set out to find gold again with his cousin and his brother. Once again they failed, and both his brother cousin both perished after falling ill.

Eventually, Charley returned again, fell in love, and was married. Later, he spent some time in the Union Army and then went west to Montana where he set up a mining site that was dependent on water. His claim attracted the attention of some men from Wells Fargo who wanted to buy his claim.  When Boles refused, they cut off the supply of water and Charley was forced to abandon the mine. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “I am going to take steps.” She wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

But it wasn’t long until a series of daring robberies began, in which Wells Fargo stage coaches were hijacked and robbed of their money and valuables.  The robberies began in 1875 and each time a poem was left behind, hinting that the perpetrator would strike again. They were signed “Black Bart”.

Throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s, Bart robbed Wells Fargo stage coaches many times.  He wore a flour sack on his head and never fired a shot, though on a few occasions, shots were fired at him. There was never any mayhem or extreme violence.