I hope the holiday season finds all of you joyous, happy, and well. Christmas was big in my house when we were little, but as we grew older, the Christmas tree went away, and then even the presents went away. Our parents might buy us some things, maybe a relative or two would give a gift, but Christmas really faded from our home as a big event. There was one tradition that stayed, however, and continues in my parents’ house to this day. Every year at some point during the holiday season, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life will play in my parents’ home. My favorite part of this experience as an adolescent was watching my father’s amazement at some section of the movie that he would swear he hadn’t seen before, even though we had the movie on videotape. This is a tradition I continue in my home to this day, although I must admit that I often watch the movie alone.
For those who are unfamiliar, It’s a Wonderful Life was made in 1946 and stars Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and was directed by Frank Capra. It is the story of George Bailey, a smart, entrepreneurial young man from the small town of Bedford Falls who has dreams of seeing the world and building modern cities. He finds himself trapped, however, by the circumstances of life. His father, who runs a Building and Loan with his drunk, forgetful uncle, dies, and the Building and Loan will dissolve if he doesn’t assume control. So he stays in Bedford Falls so that Mr. Potter, the villain of the film, will not take over everything in the town and oppress the poor. Bailey gives the money to his brother so that he can attend college, with the understanding that after his little brother graduates, he’ll come home to run the office while George goes to college. His brother graduates but gets married and takes a job from his new father-in-law, and George is stuck again. George gets married, but has to give up his honeymoon money when there was a run on the Building and Loan the day of his wedding. George’s life becomes a cycle of fighting Mr. Potter and barely making ends meet for his wife and 4 children. He finally snaps on Christmas Eve, when his uncle accidentally gives $8000 of company funds to Mr. Potter. The threat of prison along with all the other stress in his life drives George to want to commit suicide. At that moment, he meets Clarence, an angel who has yet to earn his wings. After wishing he had never been born, Clarence shows him what life would be like if he got his wish. In this alternate reality, George’s brother, a war hero in real life, died at the age of 8 because George wasn’t there to save his life. The druggist he worked for as a teen went to jail because George wasn’t there to stop him from accidentally poisoning a child. His friend no longer owns his business and his wife became an old maid.
George eventually pleads to God for his life back, running home to find that his wife has marshaled the town to help him. His friends and neighbors come running in to give him money to make up the shortfall. His brother, after it’s clear that George now has more than he needs, gives a toast to his big brother George—“the richest man in town.”
This movie has been considered one of the most inspirational movies of all time, and with good reason. Now as an adult, I see some of the problems with it (the black mammy character, the fact that Mr. Potter doesn’t end up in jail, and a bunch of other things). But at the end of the day, George realizes that his life has touched so many others and that his life has been truly wonderful despite whatever problems he may have. Just thinking about the movie this year feels different though. First, because there is a spirit of camaraderie in the film that is largely missing from our societies, communities, and churches today. The people of Bedford Falls (eventually) realized that they were living for and because of each other. The community surrounding George Bailey was one where they financially supported the building of their homes. And so, they were willing to sacrifice for someone who was in trouble, at great personal cost. I wonder sometimes how that thought process would be received in our communities and churches today, in the middle of a pandemic where so little is being requested to help others and yet we are failing to rise to the challenge. Second, it would not be a surprise if almost two years of the pandemic had us all feeling a little bit like George Bailey. It would almost be stranger if these past 21 months did not create a similar type of stress, pressure, frustration, and disappointment to that which Bailey felt in the film. But I also hope in this Christmas season that you can see how your life touches so many others and that you can see all the people who care about you. As Clarence the angel said: “No man is a failure who has friends.”
Notes & References:
 Do I need to give a spoiler alert for a 75-year-old movie?
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found by clicking here.
Title image: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Karolyn Grimes in It's a Wonderful Life. National Telefilm Associates, Public domain.
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