The year 2020 can be summarized in one sentiment: please end.
In many ways this has been a wretched year. It has given us the Covid-19 pandemic, shelter at home, face masks, and social distancing. It has given us the awareness of several unarmed African Americans killed by police, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrations, counter demonstrations and the seemingly endless chatter of the US President on twitter. It has been an exhausting, fear filled year. A year in which Christmas might well provide a welcome sanctuary.
We all have favorite seasonal Christmas movies, many of which have become regular items on our holiday to do list. My list includes Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas Vacation, Elf, A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and Santa Clause, The Movie. These seasonal movies have in common that they offer a welcome escape from life’s immediate realities and some also provide the added escape of nostalgia, conjuring up fond memories of Christmas past.
Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite seasonal movie. No doubt my affection came about through its regular screening on television, in those bygone days before internet streaming, video disks, or even VCR tapes. But it is my favorite because I love the movie’s ending – perhaps Hollywood’s happiest happy ending. But I also like that it does not only offer easy comfort.
George Bailey, the central character, becomes suicidal when his uncle loses the family business bank deposit on Christmas Eve and George feels his life crushing in on him. He is so sure of his worthlessness that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence, his guardian angel, saves George by showing him what the world would be like if he got his wish. This directly leads to the movie’s joyful conclusion. But the loss deposit on Christmas Eve is only one in a series of hardships that George has endured.
George is the ultimate victim of life’s unpredictability. He defers his dreams to accommodate his father’s death, his brother’s marriage, and numerous family and business decisions. The Christmas season, and the loss and then theft of the business bank deposit, are the straws that break the camel’s back of his pent-up frustrations. It comes to a head with George storming into his home and, uncharacteristically, berating his family’s efforts to prepare for a festive Christmas Eve celebration.
Afterwards he feels desolate, depressed and alone, not only because of the events of that one day but from a lifetime of struggles. This is why, to rescue him from despair, Clarence needs to show George the wonderful contributions his whole life has made.
The movie is really about life’s injustices and characterizes the secular Christmas season as a time when life’s struggles are amplified, not muted. It reminds us that the way our culture celebrates Christmas can be difficult, unless we remind ourselves that it is one day out of the many that make up our lives.
I love the ending of this movie, but I’ve always wished I could see Mr. Potter get what he deserved. The deposit, loss then stolen, is replaced by the charitable donations of George’s friends and family but Mr Potter, the thief, goes unpunished. It’s A Wonderful Life contains a number of themes found in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but notable absent is that the one character most resembling Ebenezer Scrooge, namely Mr. Potter, has no kind of Scrooge-like redemption. Potter is a ruthless capitalist with no regard for fairness who likes to plaster his name on everything he builds. (Kinda reminds me of, well, never mind.) By leaving Potter unpunished, the movie resists the urge to perfectly wrap everything up on Christmas and leaves open the possibility that life’s inequities and struggles may continue beyond Christmas Day.
As I recently re-watched It’s A Wonderful Life it struck me that it is the perfect movie for Christmas 2020. Life’s imperfections are not smoothed over nor or the world’s problems solved through a deux ex machina. The next time you watch it pay attention to the way George reacts after he is granted his rebirth, note that the money is still lost, and his life is still hopelessly complicated. But George runs through the town shouting out joyful greetings to the buildings he passes, he bangs on Potter’s window and wishes him Merry Christmas, he welcomes the men who have come to arrest him, he gathers his children around him and kisses his wife over and over as if to be sure that he would not lose her again. George’s joy, in defiance of his problems, provides a 2020 kind of comfort to us. Not the comfort of denial or retreat from life’s hardship, but rather the comfort of embracing life’s hardships amid the joyful happiness of the Christmas season.
74 years ago, Frank Capra produced It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie about a man’s triumph over his chaotic unpredictable life. This movie’s title is also its message: Life is as wonderful as we make it. 2020 feels like the poster child of chaotic unpredictability, but this 74-year-old movie says clearly “been there, done that”. It comforts me to know that even in 2020 with a pandemic raging around us a wonderful life is ours for the living. A wonderful life is one lived in service to God and others.
2021 is, by the grace of God, another chance to have a wonderful life.