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Marie Glancy O’SheaDecember 23, 2021
Photo: AlamyPhoto: Alamy

Every child who is reasonably well provided for imagines, now and then, how they would fare if they had to survive solo. Small wonder, then, that “Home Alone” (1990) became an instant classic on its release. It fulfills the fantasy of self-sufficiency in spectacular fashion, while wrapping it up in another wish-fulfillment scenario: the meting out of cruel and unusual punishment to bad guys.

Watching it in middle age is a very different experience. I am not the only one who finds myself preoccupied with the wealth of the immediate and extended McCallister clan. Kevin, along with his parents and siblings, lives in a splendid suburban mansion. It is dazzlingly lit even when they are out of town; they’re footing a stupendous electricity bill just to fool would-be burglars. Harry, the burglar who is not fooled, refers to the McCallister home as “the silver tuna” because of its superlative stash.

Watching ‘Home Alone’ in middle age is a very different experience.

The opulence is, of course, integral to the plot. Eight-year-old Kevin must defend his demesne against a pair of scruffy criminals all but salivating at the haul it contains. Were the McCallisters struggling to get by, it would be a totally different story. So the film has to make us understand that the McCallisters are loaded, and that their predicament stems from that fact, while still managing to elicit our sympathy for them. It does this by portraying a fully realized family in a few beautifully economical scenes. We see the scornful older sisters, the bilious uncle, the affable but ineffectual dad. We see big brother Buzz, with his forbidden boy-cave and his exquisite sneer, and Mrs. McCallister, a multitasking dervish, broadcasting, “I hope you’re all drinking milk, I want to get rid of it!” across a chaotic kitchen of children on the night before a big vacation.

These people are regular folks, like us, we decide, despite much evidence for the opposite. The impression is so firmly set that there is a meme about the belated realization that these people are members of the one percent.

As an adult, I also notice that as ingenious and brave as Kevin is, and as much as he is let down by adults who should look out for him, a string of people along the way help ensure his story gets a happy ending.

In an inversion of the typical Yuletide tale, characters who have much less than the McCallisters generously provide them with assistance.

In an inversion of the typical Yuletide emphasis on the haves extending their generosity toward the have-nots, characters who have much less than the McCallisters (either materially or emotionally) generously provide them with assistance. When Kevin visits the grocery store, a cashier questions him on the whereabouts of his parents. A polka band traveling cross-country by van offers Mrs. McCallister a lift, ensuring her arrival home on Christmas morning. Kevin’s neighbor, Mr. Marley—who lives on the same tony street, but has the misfortune of being alienated from his family and gossiped about by local children—saves him, in the end, from the villains’ clutches. You might even consider Harry’s prized gold tooth, lost in Kevin’s house and found by Kevin’s father, as the “gift” of impoverished Magi.

This dynamic of munificence flowing from the less fortunate to those with more is troubling insofar as the film seems not to acknowledge any incongruity. In today’s parlance, both the film and the McCallisters themselves appear oblivious to their privilege.

The opening scene shows the children so untroubled by the presence of a police officer in their foyer (who is really the burglar Harry in disguise) they do not even greet him. When it transpires that his only reason for being there is to reassure the family that law enforcement will protect their palatial home this season, Mr. McCallister does not find it strange. And when the burglars finally strike, we are encouraged to laugh along with Kevin as they suffer one grievous injury and humiliation after another; after all, they are only cartoonish low-lifes who have the temerity to covet Kevin’s inheritance. None of this sits well with a viewer sensitive to the ills of late-stage capitalism.

To be Christlike, we have to love the rich, too.

At the same time, pondering the asymmetrical generosity on display in “Home Alone”can impart its own lessons. This year, a new scene caught my attention. At a holiday grotto, Kevin intercepts a cigarette-smoking Santa Claus just after he has finished his shift greeting children. He is taking a parking ticket from the windshield of his banger of a car, and he’s late for a get-together. But he stops to listen to one more Christmas wish from Kevin.

He is disconcerted when Kevin’s sole request is to have his family back. He has run out of candy canes, so he reaches into a pocket and pours the last of his Tic-Tacs into Kevin’s hand. Once I overlooked this scene, but now I find it almost profound. Why?

Christ’s warnings to the wealthy about God and mammon are fundamental to our Christian understanding of the world, and we can hardly call ourselves his followers if we ignore or dismiss them. But once we are persuaded by movements for economic justice, turning the rich themselves into bogeymen can be all too easy. Christ characterized material wealth as a stumbling block for the spirit, not a mark of the beast. When he tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, he looks at him with love (Mk 10:21). He has sympathy for the man’s struggle to resist wealth’s seduction. The tax collectors whom Christ embraced were reviled because of how they amassed money. But it did not disqualify them from his love. To be Christlike, we have to love the rich, too.

The Victorians, at once devout and enterprising, invented the Christmas season as we know it. To this day, poems and stories like A Christmas Carol and The Little Match Girl color our picture of what the holiday is meant to be. But those stories bespeak an intense unease about how Christian disciples should navigate the blessing—or stumbling block—of unprecedented plenty. We are supposed to be generous with friends and family, to eat and drink and be full of cheer—without overlooking the yawning gulf between rich and poor, the plights of the lonely and dispossessed. It’s quite the slalom.

If we see generosity as a condescending gesture, we are misunderstanding the virtue.

In the midst of the American Civil War, another Victorian, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” quoting the line “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Taken from the King James translation of Luke, it has become shorthand for the largesse we aspire to at Christmas. It is an august phrasing, up to the job of capturing such a momentous abstraction; it suggests the capacious love of a God that “is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” We cling to that hope, because—as the verse makes clear—the distance between human reality and that loving ideal leads us constantly to the brink of despair. Only through divine grace can we make manifest the love of the Spirit that encompasses all of humanity, that gives and does not count the cost.

I have been on the receiving end of this kind of generosity myself at Christmas—in Bethlehem, no less. Visiting the city for the turn of the millennium in 1999, I was astounded by the hospitality I was shown. On Manger Square, people who had much less than I had insisted on buying teas and coffees for me while we chatted. As far as they were concerned, I was a guest in their homeland, and my material means or lack thereof were irrelevant.

This is altruism, and it feels unfamiliar and revelatory in a world that keeps a careful ledger. Undeniably, money makes things happen. It often dictates how much agency people have to bend circumstances to their will. So it makes sense that we should figure money into our thinking when we consider who tends to be on the giving end, and who on the receiving. And the primacy of money easily explains why Jesus, over and over, points us to the needs of the poor. Those needs are real and urgent.

But if we see generosity as a condescending gesture, as something we owe onlyto those who we can count securely beneath us on some ladder of wealth or status, we are misunderstanding the virtue. As usual, Jesus asks of us something more difficult, but ultimately more wonderful. It’s this: to look past the specifics of circumstances—our jealousies and prejudices, our insecurities—and see the core humanity of another being standing before us. This kind of formidable challenge requires a spiritual practice—Ignatian spirituality comes to mind. Eventually, we hope that we will not have to strain to look past their appearances or material conditions, because it will be the humanity of the other that we see before all else.

It is a lesson that Kevin has perhaps, by the end of the movie, begun to learn. Sitting in church, listening to a children’s choir rehearse “O Holy Night,” he spots Old Man Marley in a nearby pew. Though he has as yet no reason to doubt the scary stories he’s heard, Kevin swallows his terror, and the two end up conversing in a manner we might call man-to-man.

It’s fair to assume “Marley” is a deliberate Dickensian allusion: The chilling specter turns out to be the portal to transformation. Real-life transformations may be less poetic, but they rely just as surely on that which surpasses understanding.

More: Film / Christmas

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