Now that the holiday season is behind us and New Year resolutions are looming about, maybe already stalking us because we let them go–free to run wild for another 300 plus days–we can reflect on the spirit of Christmas and how it can effectively carry over into the rest of the year.
Think back to holiday conversations about your favorite Christmas movies. It shouldn’t be too difficult since ten different movies marathon play on several of the thousand channels available for viewing. Plus, there are a ton of cult classics to choose from nowadays: Elf, A Christmas Story, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, A Charlie Brown Christmas, White Christmas and several iterations of Scrooge. My favorite Scrooge movie might be the one where The Fonz plays Scrooge but that is besides the point. Regardless of what your favorite Christmas movie is, It’s a Wonderful Life always seems to be near the top of most lists. This movie has become part of the American Christmastime holiday culture and a big screen viewing tradition for some.
Many of these holiday movies revolve around the theme of Christmas action (family gathering, a “coming home”, commercialism, frustration of gift purchasing, greed, want, desire, etc.), introspective change (selfish to selfless) or Christmas miracles, unless, of course, it is about the Christ-child. However, It’s a Wonderful Life is not about a character being reborn or transformed into a “better” person. It is not about the death of one for the salvation of others. In It’s a Wonderful Life the Christmas/New Year holiday season is used as a vehicle for a very determined portrait of the “death to self” commitment. The theme is strictly focused on the importance of the decision to sacrifice for others every day, throughout the year.
George Bailey (the main character played by James Stewart) is a sacrificial person, constantly giving up his hopes, dreams and life’s plans for others. George does not receive any acclaim for his actions nor is he able to fulfill his own ambitions. He sacrifices each and every dream, longing and plan in order to think of others ambitions as more important than his own. This does not mean that he forgets the experiences he yearns for. This does not mean that he does not think about his sacrifice or what he feels he may be missing. It is not until he wonders if it is all worth it, if people would be better off without him, that he wishes he had never existed. George is torn apart by what will happen to others and in one fleeting moment he wishes things were different. He is distraught because he is unable to help those who trusted him, those who need him most. It is for the sake of others that he makes his wish and his adventure into non-existence begins.
During his adventure George experiences the ripple effect of his decisions to put others first. He sees that many people would have lost their lives and homes, businesses would have gone bankrupt, personal dignity and community respect would have been eroded and eventually the entire town would fall prey to the tyrannical Mr. Potter. Through little glimpses into how things would have been had he never existed, George realizes the importance of laying down one’s life in the present so that others may succeed.
Malcolm S. Forbes said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Dying to self is an important act to consider and not just during the Christmas season. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, we should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than ourselves. This may be the most gracious gift we have to offer. To give up what we think we should be doing, or think we need to get done in order to keep those in need company. This may just be the secret to a wonderful life.