This is the third in a series of pieces on imaginative works that have become deeply woven into how Christmas is celebrated in American culture. These pieces connect with Christmas, and they connect with the moral heart of America. And moreover, the issues they raise are central to the crisis that we Americans now face in the political realm, and that are at the heart of my campaign for Congress.
REDEEMED BY SACRIFICE: ‘IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’
There is, perhaps, no single movie that is more beloved for the Christmas season than “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s great film from 1946.
At the heart of this film is the life of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, who has had dreams of one kind of life but who has felt compelled, by a sense of duty, to keep choosing a different path altogether. His longing for travel and adventure must continually go frustrated because, at each crucial juncture, his family or his town need for him to stay and serve.
The crisis comes upon a Christmas eve, when despite all his efforts, it appears that the thrift institution he has preserved and built to protect his community against the forces of heartless greed, embodied by the wealthy banker, Mr. Potter, will now fail and be gobbled up by Potter.
Believing that all his sacrifices are now proving to have been for nothing, our hero, George Bailey, falls into despair. In this despair, George contemplates suicide. It is here that the element of the miraculous, so central to the meaning of the season, enters in. It comes in the form of an angel, named Clarence. Clarence shows George, who has come to believe it would be better had he never been born, just how important a difference he has made.
Two visions: in contrast to the town we have seen throughout the film, we are shown the town as it would have been had George
goodhearted, dutiful, caring George Bailey-never been born. The contrast is stark-even the name of the town is not the same: without George, his beloved Bedford Falls would have been Pottersville.
Pottersville is a mean and dismal place, filled with vice and injury and privation. The rich human lives we have seen are here, in this alternate reality, filled with pain and bitterness. The lovely Donna Reed, the wonderful wife to George and mother to their children, just to give one (albeit somewhat implausible) example, is a reticent spinster, seemingly filled with fear of the world around her and, likely, of life itself.
George learns that his sacrifices have purchased extraordinary human good for all the people he cares about.
And then in the climactic scene, the willingness to give that George has shown is now reciprocated by virtually everyone in the town. The bread he had cast upon the waters is now returned to him. His little bank is saved. With his spirit renewed, George Bailey is restored to his family and his community.
And the wholeness and decency of Bedford Falls is preserved.
What has this to do with Christmas?
Christmas is about the story of a birth, but the life that birth celebrates culminates in an act of sacrifice. The world is redeemed by a willingness to sacrifice. “He so loved the world…” it is said of the Father. And although the son had said, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26: 29), he willingly undergoes the torment and the death upon the cross, that the world may be redeemed.
George Bailey’s life of sacrifice connects directly with the season.
And what has this to with our present situation? Like George, we have ideas of the life we’d like to live, our equivalents of his dreams of travel and exploration. But like George, too, we can see that the protection of what we love requires us to set those dreams aside for a time, to sacrifice some of our own wishes to serve the big picture of all those things we care about.
At stake is whether we and our children and our grandchildren will live in an America that is Bedford Falls or one that is Pottersville.
The angel, Clarence, revealed to George the divergence of paths that would have taken place in a past in which his sacrifices had not been made. Our job now is to envision the divergence of paths into a future depending upon whether or not we make the sacrifices within our power to make to see to it that the Potters of our time are not the shapers of our nation’s destiny.
Andy Schmookler is running for Congress in the 6th Congressional District of Virginia, challenging the incumbent Congressman, Bob Goodlatte. An award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, Andy moved with his family to Shenandoah County in 1992. He is a graduate of Harvard University and holds a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.