Back in grade four my class staged a production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It was democracy in action, I guess, as everybody who wanted the lead had to audition in front of the student body, who then voted to determine who landed the lead role of Charlie Brown.
I burned to be the star.
My unconventional delivery of “Good Grief!” would bring the house down and I’d wear that iconic sweater like the superstar I knew myself to be. However, in spite of my best efforts, I lost in a landslide to Joe Macdonald, who won because all the girls thought he was cute, like a tiny Jonas brother.
Or so I told myself.
And so I was assigned the role of being a shepherd in the play, standing amidst ESL students, inveterate nose-pickers and those who were bad at sports. From the moment my teacher glued some toxic, beard-like substance on my face and handed me a staff made from a hockey stick, the dye was cast. I was to be a shepherd, and as much as I wanted to be the star, it was my destiny to always play a background role, to always be a shepherd.
In spite of the fact that this memory always drapes an unwanted shroud of self-awareness over my shoulders, I remain very fond of A Charlie Brown Christmas and count it amongst my seasonal favorites. When the brain-factory Linus takes the stage— projecting more authority than Samuel L. Jackson pointing a gun— and delivers his speech about the meaning of Christmas, all thoughts of presents, at least for a moment, are banished and Christmas becomes a holy rather than commercial enterprise.
Still, there’s a melancholic and depressive glaze to the animation, and I suppose there are many people who relate to Charlie Brown at this time of year. With a bullying and often manufactured goodwill being forced down our throats, many feel pressured, pressured to be happy and to confront obligations, both financial and social, that we really want no part of. Often, the absences in our lives feel amplified at this time, and it’s easy to fall through the cracks and feel blue, like an outsider, like Charlie Brown, and the Peanuts special serves as a reminder that even in this, we’re not alone.
However, my favorite Christmas show will always be the old 1946 Capra chestnut, It’s A Wonderful Life.
I’m powerless in the face of this movie.
I weep like a baby, every time.
Starring Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of stand-up family man George Bailey, who falls on hard times and decides to jump off a bridge. Clarence, an angel-in-training, intercedes and shows George the world that would have existed had he never been born.
In the never-been-born scenario, George sees that the town he grew up in, where he was a stabilizing force, is radically different. This incarnation of Bedford Falls is a blunt and loveless place that gives no quarter and expects none in return. Freaked-out and desperate, he careens through the streets of town, happening upon all the people that he had known and loved, now corrupted and hardened by the circumstances of their lives.
Seeing this, George begs Clarence to return him to his previous life, not so much for his sake—the immobilizing disappointments that plagued him would presumably remain— but for the sake of all the incapacitated lives circling his absence.
Freshly returned to his old life, George discovers that his family and friends have rallied around him and that on Christmas Eve, his life once ruined, is renewed. It’s perhaps the happiest ending ever, and watching the gratitude and joy radiating forth is beautiful and moving.
The older I get, the more deeply the movie effects me. As lives around me settle, and people commit themselves to jobs they may never love, live in fix-er’up houses and raise imperfect children, the themes in the film seem more germane.
Growing up, George Bailey was a single-combat hero who was destined to go out into the world and cover himself in glory. His was a beautiful and unlimited future. Like all of us. But then stuff happened, and older, looking back, he saw compromise and missed opportunities, feeling disappointed in the life he now inhabited.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a brilliant anodyne for such doubts, showing us that even if we believe we’ve lived a small life, the influence we’ve had on the world around us is unknowable. Although he never traveled outside of Bedford Falls, he did travel outside of himself and was always present in the lives of others instead of living an anonymous life in the transit of ambition, away from the people who needed him the most.
It’s a Wonderful Life reassures us, letting us know that even if we’ve always felt subordinate, like a background shepherd in the play of our own life— rather than the star of it— that there’s beauty and value in that, too. Our lives are only as big as the people we love, and who love us in return.
The rest is decoration.