When “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” was released 34 years ago, it joined a catalogue of holiday films that included wholesome offerings like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” Those were films that no parent would hesitate to watch with their children.
“Christmas Vacation” was different.
Although it’s a film about a family — with a loving and engaged dad at its warm, squishy center — the crude jokes, profanity and sexual references gave many parents pause. I learned only this year that my 21-year-daughter has never seen the film in its entirety because I abruptly turned off the TV when I attempted to watch it with her when she was in grade school.
As Chevy Chase — aka Clark Griswold Jr. — conducts a series of conversations about the film at special screenings in three U.S cities, it’s a good time to reevaluate the film’s suitability for children.
When it was released on Dec. 1, 1989, the film carried the rating PG-13, which means that parents should use their discretion for children under the age of 13.
On TV and streaming services today, its rating is TV-14, which means “parents strongly cautioned” and the material may not be appropriate for children under 14 because the show contains one or more of these things: intense violence, intense sexual situations, strong coarse language or intensely suggestive dialogue.
The ratings and their explanations are on the Healthychildren.org website of the American Academy of Pediatrics. And, according to the AAP, “Studies show that government and industry movie ratings have become more lenient over time. More violent and sexually explicit content are allowed into films than there used to be.”
So, does that mean that “Christmas Vacation” is tame by today’s standards, and we can disregard that initial PG-13?
That depends, of course, on your own family’s standards, but here’s what parents should know.
Did reviewers like ‘Christmas Vacation’ when it came out?
In his 1989 review, the late film critic Roger Ebert noted that in the earlier National Lampoon vacation movies, Clark Griswold had become “an emblem for all that is sweetest and most ineffectual in the Hollywood husband.”
“What he wishes for his family, most desperately, is that they have a good time,” Ebert wrote.
Ebert didn’t like the film; he said, “You have the odd sensation, watching the movie, that it’s straining to get off the ground but simply doesn’t have the juice.” He noted that the Griswold kids are “sullen and ill-tempered” throughout much of the film. They’re not kids, in other words, that most parents would want theirs to emulate.
The obscenities used throughout the film may be more socially acceptable today than in 1989, but there’s a lot of it, and it starts right away.
In the opening scene of the movie, when the Griswolds are driving to cut down a Christmas tree, the dad curses and makes an obscene gesture at another driver. As the skirmish escalates, the mom starts praying “The Lord’s Prayer” as part of a joke.
Once the tree is acquired and brought home, the dad gets into a verbal altercation with his stuffy, childless neighbors and fires off a vulgar insult at them. At work the next day, as a stream of corporate executives file by, Griswold says “Merry Christmas” but then tells them under his breath to “kiss my” .... well, you get it. That’s all within the first 15 minutes.
I think it’s at that point that I turned the TV off when watching with my daughter, even though a co-worker had just said to Griswold in the film, “You’re the last true family man.”
Can young children watch ‘Christmas Vacation’?
The film, funny as it is in many places, is perplexing like that — it wants to celebrate families while making crude and sophomoric jokes at their expense. The New York Times’ review of the film in 1989 mentioned its “gross-out humor, and ... the kinds of double-entendres best appreciated by 7-year-old boys.”
Common Sense Media, which rates books, movies and other forms of media on their appropriateness for children, said that the cartoon opening to the film and other aspects of the slapstick humor seem directed at young viewers but the “language and sexual references make it iffy for younger kids.”
The Common Sense Media review adds, “Adults regularly drink alcohol and are shown drunk, as well as smoking cigarettes and cigars. (Note: If you’re around kids who believe in Santa, the movie makes lots of references to who really stuffs stockings, etc., so you may want to avoid.)”
The expletives used throughout the film, sometimes by kids, span the range of language heard in sports bars.
In parents’ reviews on the Common Sense Media website, one person said, “May be funny but NOT a family movie,” and another said she would recommend for only ages 15 and up.
But several parents said they let children as young as 5 watch it and one deemed it fine for 7 and older, saying, “A few swear words but nothing too vulgar and not what they hear on the elementary school playground (seriously).”
Another rated it fine for ages 6 and older “unless profanity is a problem for you.”
Where is Chevy Chase going on tour?
Increasingly, profanity is not a problem for many Americans, even conservatives, and as “Christmas Vacation” has moved into the space of classic Christmas movies, its language is even less of a problem than it was in 1989. And with even Good Housekeeping magazine running a feature on “Christmas horror movies,” we may be fast approaching the day when “Christmas Vacation” is, in fact, considered a wholesome family movie without reservation.
In fact, as the comments at Common Sense Media show, for many people, that day is already here.
Chase is on tour right now, going to screenings of “Christmas Vacation” and then participating in a question-and-answer session with the audience in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Medford, Massachusetts, and Chicago, Illinois. Tickets are going for as much as $175 a seat.
For those who want a truly family-friendly Christmas movie experience, however, “The Chosen” Christmas special, “Holy Night,” debuts in theaters Dec. 12.