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‘Christmas Vacation’ Is A Documentary, Not A Comedy


The smiles of little faces. The large boxes marked “assembly required.” Sure, you avoid buying them. Invariably they arrive at your house. Santa Claus is a right bastard when you get down to it, especially when you’ve defended him.

Armed with small parts, pieces, glitter, Play-Doh, paints, and everything else you thought you’d avoided, he steals into our homes. He’s a well-fed troublemaker doing his damnedest to satiate the quivering desire of unbridled avarice. The best we can do is make sure the drill battery is fully charged, we have plenty of double and triple A’s, the chainsaw is sharpened and oiled, and that our own liquid cornucopias are well-stocked. Soon those little faces will pop awake, smiling and eager, well before the sun rises.

No one tells you before it’s too late that National Lampoon’s “Vacation” movies aren’t comedies, they are documentaries. Our childless and single friends may not believe us; they may not live that truth. If they cross over to our side, the one with spouses and kids and that sticky stuff on the edge of the couch, then they’ll learn, although they won’t remember our warnings. Life with kids fogs the brain, which explains why some of us have more than one. We have no Cousin Eddie, however, so there’s that.

Were we to really comprehend, really be fully aware of what goes on in our daily lives, we would all stop with one child. But we don’t comprehend—we abide. We get larger vehicles to haul our copious mountains of “necessities,” invite people over, and work to spend time with one another, because it’s the holidays, dammit.

Generally, it’s a horrible idea to do this, which explains why many family holiday and vacation traditions involve starting the day with alcohol and continuing the day with more alcohol. Some even travel before they pop open the first bottle.

Road Trip? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Road Trip

The Cromwell family has never taken the grand family road trip. The most we’ve done is a trip to Florida when we only had two kids on the outside and one on the way. Fishing, cigars, cold Apalachicola oysters on the half shell, beers—it was delightful. Thankfully, they don’t close Florida, so that wasn’t a concern. Otherwise, I might’ve had to punch a moose statue and create a hostage situation. The drive was another story.

The kids were going through a phase in which they felt the need to mark more territory than the average dog.

For one thing, the kids were going through a phase in which they felt the need to mark more territory than the average dog. Since we were traversing large portions of rural Alabama completely bereft of amenities like restaurants, gas stations, or even buildings, we had to make do, which went something like this: “Squat down, dammit! Bend your knees. Hold my hands. I’ve got you, but you are done drinking water. This is the second exit-ramp pit stop we’ve had to make this hour. Don’t make me get out the Pull-Ups.”

All in all, it lasted nine days and took us 2,000 miles over five states—with a four-year-old and a two-year-old, though both were at the “and a half” point in the year. The smell from the backseat was terrible.

There was also my really pregnant, hormonal, and cranky wife. The “Vacation” movies may be documentaries, but, alas, there was not a Christie Brinkley in a Lamborghini for me. An attractive woman in a Lexus did pass us in Alabama. We briefly made eye contact, but that’s it. I also didn’t ramp and crash my SUV in the process, so maybe it’s better there was no Brinkley in a Lamborghini.

We stopped at McDonald’s. We stopped at Burger King. We stopped at Wendy’s. Could we make it the rest of the 14 hours home without eating any more pale imitations of food? Was there a Cousin Eddie we’d forgotten and at whose house we could stop, or was that no longer an option because of the Aunt Edna situation? To be clear, we didn’t strap her dog to the bumper.

Speaking Of Dogs

The dog boarder watching our faithful best friends was located between Florida and our house. Originally, the plan was for me to drop the kids and wife at home, then go back to retrieve the canines. Sitting in that car on the long road home, we formulated a new plan. The wife would drive while Bindi, all 100 pounds of her, would sit in my lap, because the car was too jam-packed for her to go anywhere else. Fuzzy, the 50-pounder, would sit with our older daughter. Of course, the younger didn’t like that plan.

The wife would drive while Bindi, all 100 pounds of her, would sit in my lap, because the car was too jam-packed for her to go anywhere else.

“Greer, can you keep Fuzzy from tormenting—and by that I mean licking and or begging to be petted—your sister till we get home?” “Yes, I can, Daddy! Also, it’s been 20 minutes since our last stop. I need to pee in another field.” “Squat down, dammit!”

Now there are five of us. Since we are not fortunate enough to have the Family Truckster and the aforementioned brain-fog prevents me from ever remembering to buy the cross bars for my luggage rack—you know, the things that will actually allow me to attach a luggage container—even short trips are challenging. We’re down to one dog, but traveling with five people and all the supplies necessary plus that one dog doesn’t exactly get me in the spirit, even with the promise of spirits, my spirit animal.

So at Christmas, we don’t cram kith and kin into the car. Our kids get to sleep in their own beds and not spend the season staring out of car windows while smelling dog. Scratch that: they get to not spend the season staring at some Netflix nonsense on the small screen while the world moves by outside those windows—while smelling dog. Instead, they get to see me relent as I pour a second mimosa and turn on Netflix on the big screen, while maybe or maybe not smelling dog.

Home Is Where the Hearth Is—Or Heart. Whatever

And I love every minute of it. From the rage-inducing battle to set up the tree, which will fall over at least once after I set it up, to the however-many shrieking kids and relatives end up at our house, every minute is pure, unadulterated joy. Actually, thanks to the mimosas, it is adulterated, but at least the kids are completely sugared-up, vicious, at one another’s throats, and completely uninterested in the mountain of new stuff they’ve received—a mountain so large an entire Chinese province sends us, our families, and our in-laws thank you notes for feeding their families for a month.

But that’s what Christmas is about. Actually, no, it isn’t. Not at all. Or is it? Sure, we’re buried in a mountain of excess and anger and glorious imperfection. In a pile of stupid decisions and strained bonhomie, even if my family is sadly devoid of a Cousin Eddie. That is why, at my house, the greatest Christmas movie is the one that doesn’t tempt us to aspire to anything greater than making it through the holidays without taking a chainsaw to our neighbor’s tree. If you doubt me, behold, the Cromwell Family Christmas Tree.

True, it is sadly devoid of a live squirrel, but it is replete with sap; a quivering cornucopia of sap. It is flanked by too many presents, a small portion of which made it into the above picture. On Christmas morn, it shall be ransacked in a fury of unbridled avarice.

Although we have moments when we’re tempted to go park the cars and check the luggage and, well, be outside for the season, in the end we come together and smile.

While the reason for the season isn’t stuff, baubles, and must-haves that will be forgotten by lunch time, the tree and all those boxes and bags beneath it do represent our better angels. Actually, they represent the fact that even though we love them the other 364 days per year, on that one day we take time to really spoil the little demons.

We remind them that no matter how terrible they are, no matter what they destroy, regardless of what smells they emanate, they are our joy. They are the future we’re building. Maybe, just maybe, those baubles will prevent them from strapping us to the roof of the Family Truckster in a rainstorm on some dark day in the future when our time here is done. Probably not, but we can dream. That’s what kids are all about.

So we suffer through the sap and risk a squirrel, wish we had a Cousin Eddie to amble in and destroy our holiday decorations and storm drains, spend too much and invite everyone over because Christmas reminds us that, to quote the sage Clark Griswald, “We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.”

Exactly. Although we have moments when we’re tempted to go park the cars and check the luggage and, well, be outside for the season, in the end we come together and smile. We have a hap, hap, happy Christmas because we were just stupid enough to get together and celebrate. Through that celebration, we find ourseves transformed into the jolliest bunch this side of the nuthouse. Barely. “Assembly required” and glitter may push me over the edge. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. But, also, hallelujah, holy shit, pass the Tylenol.