While the holidays are finally over, they live on for most of us in our waistlines, our nightmares, and, for the lucky few, our warm and fuzzies. We invest these days with great import, dashing home to see families, spending as freely as possible (and sometimes more), drinking and eating and loving and looking back and looking forward like so many boozy, Janus-faced nostalgics, putting off the inevitable credit-card and therapy bills for the gloom of January and the despair of February. We grab onto what we remember and blindly hope for what’s to come with a desperation that would be depressing were it not for the voices of Bing Crosby or The Drifters filling the air. And of course, those memories of Christmas mornings past when a new bike or a video game could solve all your problems and make the world a better place.
As I look back, I realize that my family wasn’t particularly big on Christmas traditions – at least, not when I was a child. Our town would have Santa show up at your house on a fire truck a few days before Christmas to drop off an early gift, but I was never home and eventually my sisters tired of explaining that to the volunteer firemen and so they, my sisters, just started hiding when they heard the sirens coming. I, and evidently my parents, wasn’t worried. Santa (or, as I later found out, my dad’s friend, Mr. Moe) used to come over to our house on Christmas Eve anyway and bring me a Tonka truck before sitting and having a glass of scotch with my father by the fireplace – a story never truly believed by my teachers and friends – so I didn’t really stress missing the first go-round. We had no regular breakfast feast like many of those around us. Or maybe we did, and I was just too absorbed in the presents and discoveries of those mornings to notice. Stockings and gifts and tension were the norm, and, inasmuch, I assume we were like most families.
As I’ve grown older and come to love movies and television with a devotion bordering on the embarrassing, I’ve tried desperately to remember my family sitting around the tv and watching those signifiers that declaim the Season. I know I loved the Rankin and Bass specials like everyone else, though we never remembered when they were on, and I only saw them by through some sort of divine happenstance. I never really liked the Charlie Brown special because, after Snoopy, I didn’t really see the allure and I never figured out why everyone was such an asshole to Charlie Brown (or why you had to say his full name every time). Sure, I dug the music and I liked Schroeder, but that’s not enough to demand a reservation in my pre-dvr viewing life. We never watched The Classics like Miracle on 34th Street or White Christmas for some unknown reason, though it probably had something to do with my family’s love of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and, later, when my sisters had kids of their own, Elf. I know why we never watched It’s a Wonderful Life together: my sisters loathe it, though perhaps my parents did, too. They mock Zuzu and ringing bells and even Jimmy Stewart with a gleam in their eye that can only be called grinchy. I guess we just weren’t a Classic kind of family.
These days, I have two Christmas traditions, and they’re about as Classic as you can get. I read A Christmas Carol on the morning of Christmas Eve, and I make sure to catch It’s a Wonderful Life at the AFI as part of a double-feature of the Baileys and whatever Christmas comedy is being shown after it so I don’t have to walk out of the theater a blubbery mess. Now, maybe I’m the last to realize the connections between IAWL and A Christmas Carol, but they kind of slapped me in the face the other night when George shows up at his brother’s grave in the alternate reality of Pottersville. IAWL is essentially A Christmas Carol without the possibility of redemption. Oh sure, Clarence gets his wings and George doesn’t go to jail, but he does go back to work at the Buildings and Loan that has trapped him in Bedford Falls and kept him from dreams time and time again. We learn the value of friends, but conveniently forget that such value is purely metaphorical; we learn about a life filled with pain and catastrophe that, save for the presence of one man, would be even more painful and catastrophic still; we learn that people will give up their dreams (leaving Bedford or a still-nonexistent husband) for someone who gave up his own to help them, leaving them all hopelessly, happily together. At least Scrooge wakes up to his miserable existence and changes.
And, still, it makes me cry every damn time. It’s brutally sentimental and idealistic, and it makes you hope that maybe the world really works that way – that despite the problems and the misery we really are all in this together – because it’s masterfully written and acted and (maybe most importantly) structured. We transpose the Scrooge and Bob Crachit characters to get the put-upon everyman in the role of hero and Scrooge in the role of wheelchair-bound villain and then we’re off and running. Clarence learning about George’s quotidian heroism of the Depression is essentially the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past. We learn that George was not always so beaten down, so desperate; we learn that life is brutally hard in Bedford Falls. When we arrive at George’s moment of despair as he stands on that bridge and clutches a life-insurance policy, we’re hosting the Ghost of Christmas Present. Here, the apparition paints a picture bleaker than the melancholy-tinged good cheer of Dickens’ version of the story. George is broken and ready to die. Finally, as Clarence takes George through Pottersville, we’re essentially visiting with the Ghost of Christmas Future, right down to that gravesite visit that first sparked the recognition within me.
Unlike the Dickens tale, this time there is no bright and shiny past to reflect upon; there is no warm and cozy present just around the corner to which we may accept an invitation. No, our hero returns to the world he lives in to find his freedom and his friends – and continuing near-bankruptcy and a daughter with one of the two or three most annoying voices in the history of film. (The kid from Shane and Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain give her a run for her money.)
And so I get why we love the movie so much: it’s the embodiment of the push and pull of the holidays for all of us. What we remember is what was; what we wish for isn’t what will be, though we don’t stop remembering and wishing just because reality tells us so. It’s a time for the best and the worst in us, the past, the future, the present(s). The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled has nothing to do with Kevin Spacey, though I’m sure he has his secrets; it’s convincing people that It’s a Wonderful Life is a feel-good movie. It’s better than that. It’s capital-T True. So, if you’ve always brushed away a tear at the beautiful thought that George Bailey is the richest man in Bedford Falls, then I suggest you turn your attention to the real heart-warming element in the movie (Mary’s life-long love of George), or, better yet, the essence of this accidental Classic: A Christmas Carol.
*I Am Synesthesia is ringing in the new year and giving out wings with a return to regular publishing. I have learned my lesson (for now) and will scale back a bit on the production schedule that buried me so easily these past few months. I’ll be posting something each week for your consumption.