A tradition our family has adopted for the past decade or so is watching the movie It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. The kids complain about its over two-hour length but it’s at least a time where we put the iPads and phones away and spend time together.
I suppose I should put a spoiler alert here, but for a movie that celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, the statute of limitations has probably expired on that.
The movie’s themes of redemption, gratitude and love are timeless. The movie takes inspiration from the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol where the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future present different versions of the world to teach Ebenezer Scrooge moral lessons.
The Scrooge figure in It’s a Wonderful Life is Henry Potter the owner of the biggest bank and most of the property in the town of Bedford Falls.
He charges high rents that keep many in a cycle of poverty.
Countering his hyper-capitalist strategy is the Bailey’s family Building and Loan, that provides affordable lending for people to own their own home.
When the Bailey father suddenly dies, George Bailey, his son, is forced to give up his dreams of travelling the world and becoming an architect to run the small family business. Despite some resentment of being confined to a small country town, George makes a success of his life, marrying his high school sweetheart and having four children. Or at least he does until an error from his assistant sees the bank facing bankruptcy and possible criminal charges.
Facing ruin George spends Christmas Eve on a bridge contemplating jumping until his Guardian Angel intervenes and shows George what the world would be like if he never lived.
The movie is still watched by millions every Christmas because of the contrast between the world of Bedford Falls and that of Pottersville.
Pottersville is what the town is renamed when George Bailey is not there to check the malign intentions of Henry Potter.
The town’s main street of family businesses is converted to speak-easies and dancing girl shows.
And George’s friends are consigned to live in the slums of “Potter’s Field”, a reference to the land Israel’s Chief Priests bought when Judas threw his 30 pieces of silver into the temple. Frank Capra, the movie’s producer, said that he made it to combat the growing trend towards atheism.
Without George, the Building and Loan would have gone bust during the bank runs of the Great Depression. George saves the day with an impassioned speech to the desperate people who want to withdraw their money that “your money is not here, it’s in Joe’s house, the Kennedy house, Mrs Mecklin’s house and a hundred others.”
After seeing how many lives his own life touches George declares he wants to live again even if that means personal ruin. His angel returns him to Bedford Falls where he finds that his wife has organised his friends to donate money to save the Building and Loan after all.
The key lesson for us remains the same as it did 75 years ago at the end of World War II. Will we live in a world that supports small, family businesses over large corporate interests? Will we support families and community over rampant individual lust and greed?
And most importantly, the choice between Bedford Falls and Pottersville is determined more by the actions of each of us as individuals rather than distant organisations or governments alone. The new year always offers us the choice and our traditions are so important to remind us of it.