What Exactly Makes `It’s a Wonderful Life’ a Movie About Christmas?

I can remember “It’s a Wonderful Life” airing on WTBS every Christmas morning long before it became the iconic emblem of the season that it seemed to miraculously transform into over the course of the 1980s. One of the things that always bothered me about this tradition by the programmers in charge at the SuperStation was that “It’s a Wonderful Life” really didn’t seem to be a Christmas movie in the way that other popular films are.

The film may well be the darkest Christmas classic ever to become a staple of the season and those dark qualities have been discussed to the point that criticism of its alleged oversentimentality has all but been laid to rest. Still, those who accept either the misguided notion that Capra’s movie is too sentimental or that it is a profoundly dark vision of post-war America seem to miss exactly what does make it a Christmas movie.

The fact of the matter is that precious little screen time in “It’s a Wonderful Life” includes any indication that it should be viewed as a perennial holiday offering. Christmas trees and presents are in short supply and Santa’s capacity for delivery packages is never once put in jeopardy. Based solely on concrete visual images, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is no more a “Christmas movie” than “Die Hard.”

And yet, it most clearly is just that. Just about everybody responds to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in a way that is just as accepting of it being a movie about Christmas as any of the multiple versions of Scrooge’s redemption or Ralphie’s fervent wish for a Red Ryder BB gun. Why?

The answer likely lies somewhere just beneath the surface of the conscious reception of the transmission of those visual images so thinly presented over the course of the narrative. What is important to keep in mind is that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a movie in which everything revolves around a birth. The straightforward narrative of the plot, the thematic analysis of the two faces of capitalism, the affirmation or rejection of traditional American values and the film’s most slippery issue of all: the importance of brotherhood juxtaposed against the value of the individual.

Both Bedford Falls and Pottersville, the two opposing parallel presentations of the same small town in which the action takes place, are entirely dependent upon just one thing: the birth of George Bailey. If George’s birth is averted or simply fails to take place, those small town citizens whose lives would have been touched by his presence of George Bailey falls into a dark chasm defined by their lack of morality and ethical awareness. If George is allowed to be born, however, the residents are given a chance to avoid moral turpitude. Some will, some won’t, but all are given the opportunity to find salvation they choose to look for it.

Only as a result of the birth of George Bailey.

Sound familiar? Does “It’s a Wonderful Life” now seem to you to be far more of a traditional Christmas movie than it used to? Does the significant scarcity of traditional signs and symbols of Christmas that calls into question just how much of a “Christmas movie” this film really is seem to matter as much?

And just in case all that sentiment at the Bailey household that brings the movie to a close bothers you, keep this in mind. Just as the birth of Jesus in no way ensures salvation for everyone, neither does the birth of George Bailey. After all, the collective charity of the residents of Bedford Falls may well have kept George out of jail, but nowhere does the alleged surplus of Mr. Capra’s sentiment ever give even the slightest indication that Mr. Potter’s theft of George’s $8,000 will ever come to light, that he will be punished or, especially, that a Scrooge-like redemption is in his future.