In defence of frazzled Christmas movie moms

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What do A Christmas Story, Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation have in common? 

They’re all cult Christmas classics, yes, and they’re all getting up there in years, sorry, but there’s something else.

Moms. Harried moms who forget their child at home, who live in housecoats and yell “You’ll shoot your eye out,” who, in a moment of duress about hosting their parents and in-laws, chop a head of cabbage in half while sneaking a cigarette in the kitchen.

As a generation of kids who grew up watching these films are now, like many of the films themselves, approaching middle age, some are noticing details they may have overlooked before. Namely, that the moms are actually extremely relatable and generally under-appreciated.

“Why does every single Christmas movie mom get the short end of the stick?” asks a writer on parenting and lifestyle website Scary Mommy.

“As a mother, all I see is a tired and frazzled woman, desperately in need of a slice of pizza (which, by the way, she paid for),” notes a Why Now article in defence of Kevin’s mom in Home Alone.

WATCH | Catherine O’Hara on starring in Home Alone: 

While the frazzled mom trope can be used for comedic purposes in these movies, the sentiment, for many, isn’t that funny. Multiple studies have shown the acute time pressures on mothers — particularly when it comes to the mental load. And a 2022 Statistics Canada report estimated that women consistently take on a larger share of unpaid household work, including childcare.

Throw in the pressure of buying presents, making Christmas magic happen for the kids, planning meals and hosting guests, and suddenly stabbing a head of iceberg lettuce while your husband spends literally the entire day on the roof putting up Christmas lights doesn’t seem like an over-reaction.

“In some way many of these films articulate the pressures of perfection,” Lisa Coulthard, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of British Columbia, told CBC News in an email.

“At the same time, I can’t think of Christmas movies where moms are ‘perfect’ in that way. Although they are often the insightful, adult agent in the chaos, at the same time that they are frazzled.” 

Anyway, because it’s Christmas (and at Christmas we tell the truth), here are three frazzled Christmas movie moms that some believe never got their due.

Kate McCallister in Home Alone (1990)

“What kind of a mother am I?” Kate McCallister, played by Canadian acting icon Catherine O’Hara, asks rhetorically as she realizes, mid-flight, that she forgot Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) at home.

And indeed, as a child watching the 1990 hit Home Alone, it might be difficult to imagine how a mom could do such a thing, and what kind of mean streak might drive her to force her eight-year-old son to sleep alone in the attic in the first place.

But with the perspective of parenting, even O’Hara herself admits that she gets it. “I know it’s possible,” O’Hara told the Toronto Star in 2015, adding that her own parents once forgot her sister while moving from one house to another.

Kate McCallister, played by Catherine O’Hara, desperately tries to get back home to her son in this scene from the 1990 movie Home Alone. (IMDB)

As some fans have noted, Kate McCallister also appeared to be nearly solely responsible for getting the family organized and out the door for their trip to Paris, and some have even speculated that she’s the breadwinner of the family (she’s always impeccably dressed, has a massive address book, is responsible for paying for the pizza, and some have even wondered if all those mannequins in the house are because she’s a clothing designer).

Meanwhile, it’s interesting that Kevin being home is her responsibility more than her husband’s, that she is the one who disciplines her son, that she is the one to wake them all up when the alarms fail, and that she is the one who “feels” that something is wrong, Coulthard said.

“She is the one to sleep at the airport and persevere in trying to get home — only to have the rest of the gang show up pretty much at the same time,” she said.

“Maternal responsibility is highlighted but not maternal heroism.”

‘Mother’ in A Christmas Story (1983)

In the movie credits, she is listed only as “Mother.” Perhaps that is all we need to know to understand her plight.

Best known for the line “You’ll shoot your eye out,” her fuzzy hair and housecoat, and as perhaps the original frazzled boy-mom, “Mother” in the 1983 cult classic A Christmas Story is also called “Ralphie’s mom,” but never by name. Melinda Dillon, who played the formidable character, died this year at age 83.

“One look at her dishevelled hair and shabby robe and exasperated stare and I thought: This woman is a damn hero,” reads a line in a New York Times piece reflecting on “Mother.”

A woman with curly hair and wearing a robe stands beside a smiling man in a robe.
Melinda Dillon, who played the formidable character of ‘Mother’ in the 1983 classic A Christmas Story, is pictured with Darren McGavin, who plays ‘the old man.’ (MGM/IMDB)

We don’t know much about Ralphie’s mom as a person, but as a mother struggling to get her children into snowsuits, get her picky eater to try a single bite of the hot meal she prepared (that neither child likes), and being the killjoy suggesting a BB gun may not be an appropriate gift for a child (then being undermined by her husband and, lo and behold, being right when Ralphie really does shoot himself in the eye) — she is extremely relatable.

“She loves her family deeply but often totally gets the shaft. Rewatching this film as a wife and mom now is a wild ride,” Scary Mommy notes.

No wonder she knocks the leg lamp over.

We are all Mother.

WATCH | Is A Christmas Story a Canadian classic?  

A Christmas Story: a Canada classic

Now 30 years old, A Christmas Story is considered an all-American holiday classic, but with undeniably Canadian roots and settings

Ellen Griswold in Christmas Vacation (1989)

Right from the get-go, Ellen Griswold (Beverly D’Angelo) warns her husband Clark (Chevy Chase) not to go overboard with Christmas plans in the 1989 film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. “You set standards that no family activity can live up to,” she tells him as he suggests inviting both sets of their parents to stay with them for a month. 

Clark gets a lot of sympathy from audiences for just trying to orchestrate a fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. But who’s the one holding everything together, proclaiming “we have plenty of room” when cousin Eddie shows up, trying to smooth over everyone’s conflicts and breakdowns while simultaneously prepping meals and keeping both sets of parents entertained while Clark puts up Christmas lights and takes the children sledding?

Unflappable Ellen.

A family gathers around the table about to carve into a turkey in  a scene from a movie
The Griswold family sits down for Christmas dinner right before the proverbial s–t hits the fan in this scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. (Warner Brothers/Hughes Entertainment)

“What I think is interesting with ‘frazzled Christmas mom’ is that it is often the man in the family who tries to overly orchestrate, control or assert the family’s enjoyment of Christmas,” Coulthard said. “It is the dad in [Christmas Vacation] or in A Christmas Story whose over-indulgence and intense desire for enjoyment creates the chaos.”

Amid the chaos, in a particularly poignant kitchen scene, Ellen hits the nail (or the lettuce) on the head.

“I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery,” she quips to her whining teen daughter right before she chops that head of lettuce straight down the middle. It’s perhaps the most perfect symbol for emotional labour of our time.

“I think everybody identifies with that,” D’Angelo said about the famous line in a 2020 interview on Minnesota radio station The Current. “That role was in honour of my own mother.”

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