“Home Alone” is a Christmas movie about the rich and why they too deserve our generosity
Every reasonably well-endowed child imagines, from time to time, how he would fare if he had to survive on his own. It is therefore not surprising that “Home Alone” (1990) became a classic upon its release. He dramatically fulfills the fantasy of self-sufficiency, while also wrapping it in another wish-fulfillment scenario: the imposition of cruel and unusual punishments on the bad guys.
Watching him in middle age is a very different experience. I’m not the only one to find myself concerned about wealth of the immediate and extended McCallister clan. Kevin, along with his parents and siblings, lives in a beautiful suburban mansion. It is dazzling even when they are out of town; they pay a hefty electric bill just to deceive would-be burglars. Harry, the undecided burglar, calls House McCallister “the silver tuna” because of its superlative hiding place.
Watching “Home Alone” in middle age is a very different experience.
Opulence is of course an integral part of the plot. Eight-year-old Kevin must defend his estate against a pair of scruffy criminals who are almost salivating at the loot it contains. If the McCallisters had a hard time getting through this, that would be a whole different story. So the film has to make us understand that the McCallisters are loaded and their predicament stems from this, while still managing to arouse our sympathy for them. To do this, he portrays a fully realized family in a few beautifully economical scenes. We see the contemptuous older sisters, the bilious uncle, the affable but ineffective dad. We see Big Brother Buzz, with his forbidding boy-cave and exquisite sneer, and Mrs. McCallister, a multitasking dervish, broadcasting, “Hope you all drink milk, I want to get rid of it!” through a chaotic children’s kitchen on the eve of a summer vacation.
These people are ordinary people, like us, we decide, despite much evidence to the contrary. The impression is so firmly anchored that there is a meme about the belated realization that these people are members of the 1%.
As an adult, I also notice that as resourceful and brave as Kevin is, and while he’s disappointed in the adults who should be watching over him, a series of people along the way help to ensure that his story comes together. ends well.
In a reversal of the typical Yuletide tale, characters who have much less than the McCallisters generously help them.
In a reversal of Yuletide’s typical emphasis on the haves extending their generosity to the have-nots, the characters who have much less than the McCallisters (either materially or emotionally) generously provide their help. When Kevin walks to the grocery store, a cashier asks him about his parents’ whereabouts. A group of polkas traveling across the country by van offer Ms McCallister a lift, ensuring her arrival home on Christmas morning. Kevin’s neighbor, Mr. Marley, who lives down the same street as Tony, but is unlucky enough to be estranged from his family and chatted away by neighborhood kids, ultimately saves him from the clutches of the bad guys. You might even consider Harry’s precious golden tooth, lost in Kevin’s house and found by Kevin’s father, as the “gift” from impoverished mages.
This dynamic of munificence which flows from the less fortunate to the richest is disturbing insofar as the film seems to recognize no incongruity. In today’s parlance, the film and the McCallisters themselves seem oblivious to their privilege.
The opening scene shows the kids so unmoved by the presence of a police officer in their household (who is really the burglar Harry in disguise) that they don’t even greet him. When it turns out his only reason for being there is to reassure the family that law enforcement will protect their lavish home this season, Mr McCallister doesn’t find it strange. And when the burglars do eventually strike, we are encouraged to laugh with Kevin as they suffer one serious injury and humiliation after another; after all, they’re just cartoonish bas-de-vie that have the temerity to covet Kevin’s legacy. None of this is suitable for a viewer sensitive to the evils of terminally ill capitalism.
To be like Christ, we must also love the rich.
At the same time, meditate on the asymmetrical generosity displayed in “Home Alone”can give his own lessons. This year a new scene caught my eye. In a holiday cave, Kevin intercepts a cigarette-smoking Santa Claus just after he finishes his shift to greet the children. He takes a parking ticket from the windshield of his car and is late for an appointment. But he stops to listen to another Christmas wish from Kevin.
He is baffled when Kevin’s only request is to be reunited with his family. He’s out of candy canes, so he puts his hand in a pocket and pours the last of his Tic-Tacs into Kevin’s hand. I once overlooked this scene, but now I find it almost profound. Why?
Christ’s warnings to the rich about God and Mammon are fundamental to our Christian understanding of the world, and we can hardly call ourselves His disciples if we ignore or reject them. But once we’re convinced by the movements for economic justice, turning the rich themselves into buggers can be far too easy. Christ characterized material wealth as a stumbling block for the spirit, and not as a mark of the beast. When he tells the rich young man to sell everything he has and to give it to the poor, he looks at him with love (Mk 10,21). He has sympathy for the struggle of man to resist the seduction of wealth. The tax collectors that Christ embraced have been reviled for the way they have raised money. But that did not disqualify them from his love. To be like Christ, we must also love the rich.
The Victorians, both devout and enterprising, invented the Christmas season as we know it. To this day, poems and stories like A Christmas Carol and The little girl with matches color in our picture of what the holidays are meant to be. But these stories testify to an intense unease over how Christian disciples should navigate the blessing – or the stumbling block – of unprecedented abundance. We are meant to be generous with our friends and family, to eat and drink and to be full of joy – not to mention the yawning chasm between rich and poor, the sufferings of the lonely and the dispossessed. It is quite the slalom.
If we see generosity as a condescending gesture, we are ignoring virtue.
In the midst of the Civil War, another Victorian, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, citing the line “Peace on earth, goodwill to men”. Taken from Luke’s King James translation, it has become a shorthand for the largesse we yearn for on Christmas. It is an august phrasing, up to the task of capturing such a capital abstraction; it suggests the vast love of a God who “is not dead, and neither does he sleep.” We cling to that hope because, as the verse makes clear, the distance between human reality and this ideal of love constantly brings us to the brink of despair. It is only through divine grace that we can manifest the love of the Spirit which embraces all mankind, who gives and does not count the price.
I myself have benefited from this kind of generosity at Christmas, in Bethlehem, nothing less. While visiting the city for the turn of the millennium in 1999, I was amazed at the hospitality shown to me. In Manger Square, people who had much less than me had insisted on buying me teas and coffees while we chatted. As far as they were concerned, I was a guest in their homeland, and my material means or their absence did not matter.
It’s altruism, and it seems unusual and revealing in a world that keeps a careful record. Undeniably, money makes things happen. This often dictates the degree of agency people have to bend circumstances to their will. So it makes sense that we factor money into our thinking when considering who tends to give and who receives. And the primacy of money easily explains why Jesus, again and again, points out to us the needs of the poor. These needs are real and urgent.
But if we see generosity as a condescending gesture, as something we only oweto those whom we can safely count under us on a scale of wealth or status, we misunderstand virtue. As usual, Jesus asks us for something more difficult, but ultimately more wonderful. That’s it: to look beyond specific circumstances – our jealousies and prejudices, our insecurities – and see the heart of humanity of another being before us. This kind of formidable challenge requires spiritual practice – Ignatian spirituality comes to mind. Ultimately, we hope that we don’t have to make an effort to look beyond their appearances or their material conditions, for it will be the humanity of the other that we will see first and foremost.
It’s a lesson Kevin may have, by the end of the movie, started to learn. Sitting in church, listening to a children’s choir rehearse “O Holy Night”, he sees Old Man Marley on a bench nearby. While he still has no reason to doubt the scary stories he has heard, Kevin swallows his terror and the two end up conversing in a way we might call man-to-man.
It’s fair to assume that “Marley” is a deliberate Dickensian allusion: The Frightening Specter turns out to be the portal to transformation. Real-life transformations may be less poetic, but they just as surely rely on what is beyond comprehension.