It's a Wonderful Life

Bah, Humbug

Its a Wonderful Life - James StewartNow that it’s over, I feel like I can be honest: I’m not really into Christmas. This hasn’t always been the case. I remember childhood Christmas mornings full of anticipation and eagerness, Christmas Eves spent laying out cookies and milk for Santa—all that traditional rigmarole. Occasionally, my family would get up to holiday high jinx; once, over the holiday break from school, my mother left my brother and I during our nighttime teeth-brushing to answer the front door and when she came back, she told us it had been Santa stopping by to make sure we were being good. (It was actually my uncle, probably dropping in to borrow a power tool from my dad, but my brother and I were dazzled: Santa had stopped by our house. To check on us!) Another time, after all the presents were opened and the inevitable come-down was settling over the family, Dad ramped the party vibe right back up by surprising me with a bicycle he’d actually battled Black Friday crowds for. There were candlelight Christmas services at church, actual house-to-house caroling excursions, nativity pageants, cookie-making marathons, drives around town to ohhh and ahhh at Christmas lights.

It seems to me that Christmas hinges on three things: family togetherness, gift-giving, and the traditional Christian nativity story. In a year when togetherness was impossible for my family, it would be easy to claim that my Scroogey attitude is a result of how fucked up things are right now for the Bradburys. The fact is, though, I haven’t been into Christmas in years. When you’re surrounded by holiday cheer that virtually everyone merrily buys into, it doesn’t seem acceptable to voice what you know is going to be an unpopular opinion. You’re seen as a downer, someone who doesn’t enjoy fun. I enjoy fun. I even love holidays—just not this one.

For the non-religious and childless, really, what’s the point of Christmas? Although I’m notoriously known as not being “into” kids, I’ll be the first to admit that without kids, Christmas is dullsville. Who wants to sit around watching a roomful of adults ripping open presents they don’t need and will never use? It’s fun to see a kid’s face bloom into surprise and joy when she discovers “Santa” brought her exactly what she requested in her letter; it’s the opposite of fun to hear half-hearted thank-yous from forty-year-olds who just discovered multi-use pocket tools in their stockings.

I actually love getting gifts for friends and family. But what I love is randomly discovering something I know will be just perfect for someone, then presenting that gift when it’s least expected. (Or on a birthday. Birthdays, I love.) This kind of gift-giving is delightful. It’s not borne out of obligation, nor is it scheduled by the calendar year. Gifts on Christmas, I would argue, are the least exciting because there’s nothing spontaneous or surprising about them. They’re expected. Christmas gift-giving is a forced spiral into debt that can’t be avoided. You resolve to make your gifts this year but discover that gifts made by hand actually cost more than those bought from Amazon. You winnow your Santa-list down to the bare minimum—close family and friends—but then you’re told that all the cousins coming to the holiday party are getting you a gift, and you don’t want to be the non-reciprocating asshole, and also everyone’s pitching in for your boss’s gift, which is only forty dollars per person…Obligated gift-giving is, to my mind, the worst kind.

Focus, then, on the Reason for the Season, advise the religious among us. Except if you’re not religious—if you don’t buy into a supernatural tale about a magic baby whose parents are a virgin and a ghost—then the Reason is kind of moot. Yes, even atheists can presumably get behind the idea of charity and kindness and love for one’s fellow man. But wouldn’t it be better if we celebrated and practiced these things all year round instead of selecting one random winter day once a year to do so?

When I go back to the part of the country where I grew up to celebrate Christmas, I attend Christmas Eve services because I know my parents want me to. At one point, I actually enjoyed this; though I no longer belong to a church or subscribe to any religion, I did enjoy visiting with the people who’d populated my childhood, and I liked singing the traditional holiday hymns. But a few years ago, my parents switched churches. Now they go to what I’d call a “mega-church,” where I don’t know any of the people and where the songs sound like the Christian version of Top 40 garbage. While at one time I was able to engage with the religious aspect of the holiday on a nostalgic level, now even that’s gone.

Since I first watched it on basic cable as a sick-at-home grade schooler, It’s a Wonderful Life has been my favorite Christmas movie. But have you seen it lately? It’s barely a Christmas movie. The majority of the film takes place in flashback, giving you the details of George Bailey’s life that lead to the fateful Christmas Eve that brings him to the brink of suicide. Once George meets up with his guardian angel, he quickly tours the alternate universe—the one in which he was never born—then makes things right again when he asks for his life back. Finally, he returns home, where friends and family have gathered and taken up donations to bail him out of his money troubles—a completely unexpected, spontaneous gift of generosity and love. The film ends, then—on Christmas Eve, before the actual holiday even rolls around—with a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”—a song traditionally sung not on Christmas, but on New Year’s Eve.

Is it any wonder this not-very-Christmassy Christmas movie is my favorite? Though I’m not fond of resolutions, I like setting goals, and I love a good booze-soaked party; I could see myself toasting with the Baileys on a New Year’s Eve. There’s a moment during the alternate-universe sequence of the movie when the camera gives us a close-up of George’s horrified face as he realizes what’s happened; cacophonous music swells and George’s eyes bulge—it’s a scene straight from a horror movie, on par with moments from certain films I associate with my actual favorite holiday, Halloween. It’s a Wonderful Life even manages to celebrate the promise of summer and the sweetness of spring nights that find you falling in love with someone you’ve only just thought to look at a second time. Christmas, though? Really, it’s given zero screen time in this Christmas movie.

And I’m okay with that. I’m happy to buy gifts on my terms, and as long as my best friend’s little girl believes in the magic of Santa, I’ll gladly watch her tear into the presents under the tree. I’ll sing a verse or two of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” while sweeping cat hair from the corners of my apartment on an April afternoon. And on a rainy autumn evening, I might curl up on my couch and watch Jimmy Stewart run through the streets of Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve, shouting about how wonderful he’s discovered his life is. Even Jimmy knows it’s not Christmas that’s the wonderful thing.