Last December, my wife and I watched Home Alone for the first time in years. Call me lame, but I have some very fond memories of turning on the TV after Thanksgiving dinner every year and watching Kevin McCallister defend his home from the Wet Bandits. And maybe I’m riding on pure nostalgia here, but after all this time it’s still pretty darn funny.
On a more serious note, I noticed that Home Alone bears a resemblance to at least two other classic Christmas stories that we revisit at this time of year: Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That is, in each story the protagonist experiences a supernatural or apparently supernatural absence. Kevin McCallister, in a fit of petulance, wishes to never see his family again, and wakes up the next morning to find the house empty, having overslept everyone’s mad rush to the airport. George Bailey, at the lowest point of his life, wishes he’d never been born, and Clarence the angel proceeds to show him a vision of exactly what the lives of those around him would look like if that were so. And of course, Scrooge is given supernatural visions into both the happy past he has forgotten, and the future world in which no one mourns his death.
Through these experiences, each character comes to realize what they’re missing and desires to change. Kevin meets Old Man Marley at church and they talk about their respective family issues. Kevin realizes he’s been a jerk and wishes he could see his family again. George Bailey, overcome by how changed everyone’s lives are without his presence, runs back to the bridge where he tried to commit suicide, and screams, “Take me back! I want to live again! Please God, I want to live again!” Scrooge, of course, after waking up in his own bedroom to find he is alive, declares that, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!”
In the end, Kevin gets his family back, George gets to return to his “wonderful life”, and Scrooge gets to redeem his formerly ungenerous existence.
Now, characters coming to self-realizations after the withdrawal of an important element in their lives isn’t exclusive to Christmas stories or films, but it is curious that it figures so prominently in some of the most popular ones, such as these three.
Perhaps this is because the Christmas season is a time when absence and presence figure in so significantly.
The “perfect” Christmas requires the presence of certain things: decorations, favorite dishes, and most importantly, family, as expressed in the famous Home Alone theme “Somewhere In My Memory” (which always makes me a bit misty eyed when I hear it).
Conversely, if we experience the absence of these things, it “just doesn’t feel like Christmas.” We miss the special times with loved ones, and the feeling of nostalgia we get from looking at a gloriously decorated tree.
Looking more deeply, however, the spiritual heart of Christmas resides in both absence and presence. Advent is the season of waiting upon God’s saving presence, of remembering centuries of longing for a Messiah, of the terrible awareness of a broken world. But Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ arrival and presence, and the knowledge that wherever He is, there we find our home and our satisfaction.
Considering them this way, we see each of these three stories moving from Advent (absence and longing) to Christmas (presence) by taking away the things the characters love, need, or have forgotten, and returning them once the characters have come to reappreciate them through longing. This I believe draws out something further, which is sehnsucht—the yearning for ultimate happiness. As American writer Paula Fox has put it, “the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing”. The appeal of Christmas with all its trappings isn’t in the trappings themselves, but what they point to, which is an ultimate sense of belonging, a home we have not yet arrived at, a greater feast yet to be celebrated.
All of the music,
All of the magic,
All of the family home here with me.
Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.