This week, I shook up my family’s television & movie comfort zone. While we watch a lot less television than the average American family, I like for us to have one or two programs that we watch together: to stimulate conversation, to diversify our free time activities, to give me an excuse to hug my kids every night on the couch. As a family, we tend to choose shows that allow us to discuss intersectionality and identity: Black-ish for race, ethnicity, and money; Gilmore Girls for race, ethnicity, gender, and money; Modern Family for all the things they don’t mention about race, ethnicity, gender, and money (at least in the three seasons that I’ve seen so far).
However, this week I decided it was time for a break from our usual shows, and, given the season, I pulled out the classic Christmas movies. I felt like the kids were finally old enough to handle the black and white, uncut version of It’s a Wonderful Life, and it did not disappoint. The family conversations about race, gender, and classism were as rich as usual. The look my 12-year-old daughter gave me when Jimmy Stewart swats the family maid on the bottom to chase her back into the kitchen…yes, I had a lot of explaining to do, and explain I did.
But I’m used to all that.
It was my 9-year-old who pulled out the most interesting question, a day later: “Mom, why do we even consider It’s a Wonderful Life a Christmas movie?”
It’s a great question. Much of the film takes place in a series of flashbacks which do not fall in the Christmas season. From her perspective, the film revolves around power and economic struggle and the classic American dream of owning a home. These are not Christmas ideas – they are everyday ideas – so why do we watch it at Christmas?
I pointed out that the most beloved and important scenes take place on Christmas Eve. I mention that angels are most frequently (though not exclusively) associated with Christmas Eve. However, these two rather superficial points were not enough for either of us. So I compared and contrasted it to A Christmas Carol – a movie that she already accepts as a Christmas film.
Both movies are driven by reflection. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is transformed by the realization that he is not engaging with the world as his best self. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George is transformed by the realization that he has been engaging with the world as his best self. These characters really are more similar than dissimilar. The fact that they are both forced to engage in reflection (by supernatural or religious figures…I’ll restrain myself from making these synonymous) at the end of the year…it seems like something to which we all relate. End-of-the-year reflection is a near-ritualistic act in our culture, so prevalent that my 9-year-old accepted all of this immediately and without further argument (she wasn’t buying the angel angle).
I recently and randomly saw a Willa Cather quote: “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”
Brilliant quote. Reflective learning is not everything, but it is something. It is the learning we do in the calmer moments. While we should do it more than once a year, at least most of us do it this time of year. As we all do it in the next few weeks, remember to think about the year from multiple perspectives – as George Bailey and Scrooge. Remember that they were both bailed out not so much by the supernatural (or their religiousity) but by their friends, family, and the people who believed in them.