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By Cameron Bellm

Clark Griswold is going to have the perfect family Christmas. He’s decking all the halls, inviting all the relatives, and facing down the most festive of seasons with relentless optimism and determination that borders on deranged. Of course, absolutely everything goes wrong. This is the delight of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” my family’s favorite Christmas movie, the one we quote to each other all year long.

It’s hilarious to watch someone so utterly dedicated to perfection, someone who in 2023-speak we would call very extra about Christmas, smack into such a never-ending cascade of mishaps and pratfalls. But this is the whole human experience, isn’t it? Where humans are involved, things are messy. The full catastrophe.

What Clark isn’t considering as he invites his parents, his in-laws and his peculiar extended family into his perfect holiday home is that, as humans, we all have sharp edges. I imagine us all shaped like the twenty-six-pointed Moravian stars my parents hung above our front door every Christmas — they bear a luminous resemblance to the more sinister spiked metal balls used in medieval warfare. Put a bunch of us together, and we’re going to poke each other. It’s inevitable.

Clark perseveres through the many assaults on his perfect family Christmas until, at last, he loses it in rather epic fashion. Everything is in shambles. But somehow, his family still has each other. And as they stand outside in the snow and look up in wonder at the twinkling stars on Christmas Eve, maybe Clark realizes that there’s no such thing as a perfect Christmas — just a family Christmas, just a Christmas that makes room for teenage moodiness and elderly cantankerousness and the maddening eccentricity of every human person. Maybe that’s a good Christmas after all.

I had occasion to think about the chaos of the first Christmas several years ago when a retreat leader guided us through an Ignatian contemplation of the Nativity story. As I imagined the sights and smells of Bethlehem and got a feel for the cold and inhospitable barn where Jesus was born, shepherds showed up, and then wise men.

My silent reverie was interrupted, and I found myself irrationally angry. As someone who has given birth twice, I can tell you that a bunch of strangers crowding in to peer at your newborn and make lofty conversation with you…is not what you want in that moment.

“Who do these people think they are, crowding in on this intimate scene?” I thought. “Don’t they have the decency to give this family some privacy?”

And, of course, I realized that this response was tied to my own inner Clark Griswold — the part of me that values controllable quiet over the unpredictable wildness of real human connection. I remembered that Jesus welcomes everyone, makes room for everyone, lovingly and good-humoredly tolerates all kinds of nonsense from us. And I think he enjoys it, truly.

This Christmas, nothing will be perfect because there is no perfect where human beings are concerned. But what I most hope for is the ability to enjoy the holy sparks that fly between us when we bump into each other, the ability to see the constellations we can build with all our 26-pointed stars.

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Cameron Bellm is a Seattle-based writer and retreat leader and holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature from UC Berkeley. Cameron’s work has been featured in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Geez Magazine, Red Letter Christians and Catholic Women Preach. She is the author of “A Consoling Embrace: Prayers for a Time of Pandemic” and “No Unlikely Saints: A Mental Health Pilgrimage with Sacred Company.” Learn more at