I have just finished watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The quintessential Christmas family movie was shot wonderfully — really — by Frank Capra, the acclaimed director of pieces of pure art, such as “It happened one night” and “Mr Smith goes to Washington”. Oddly, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was bashed by critics and received poor public attendance when released in 1946. Yet, in the ensuing decades, it has become one of the most-watched movies of all time, and an unmissable family movie, especially for American families.
The movie is technically remarkable for the perfect black&white Joseph Walker’s cinematography and the audacious close-ups on James Steward as he feels his life is broken into crumbs. Semantically, it is a scorching allegory of the extreme, kind-less, individualist capitalism that would soon have taken over from the community-based equalitarian system that came out of the years of the New Deal.
Wiping my tears as the movie rolled its end credits, I reflected on how our society has changed since then, how communities have broken up. How do people invoke their rights to a concept of freedom that does not exist and forget about our obligations before all the others.
In his wonderful long study on the sources of the Western world — A Secular Age — Charles Taylor describes the importance of carnival in medieval times, a day when common women and men made fun of the ruling class. The latter tolerated and encouraged this ‘day of misrule’ as a safety valve against all the oppression they imposed on the commoners all year through.
Similarly, on Christmas day before our screens, we cherish George Bailey at Christmas while being Mr. Potter for all the remaining 364 days.
So, maybe we should abolish Christmas, this single day in the year when we feel compelled to be kind, to give, to be generous and thoughtful. Maybe — just maybe — without this ‘safety valve’, we would start to seriously miss everything important: community, generosity, kindness, selflessness.
And we will learn from the song:
It is not the things you do on Christmas day,
but the Christmas things you do all year through.