I like Christmas movies. I particularly like Christmas TV specials, especially those made before I was born—The Little Drummer Boy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and the rest of the Rankin-Bass claymation shorts make me nostalgic for a past I am too young to have known.
Most of the new Christmas specials are terrible. Some of that is a product of the Bechdel test and the quota-minding spirit that inspires shallow and insipid plot lines. Much of the problem with the new flicks, however, is their soppy and saccharine character. The best Christmas movies—the ones we watch every year—are centered around the fact of human suffering, even if they are punctuated with moments of joy.
It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie and, objectively, the best full-length Christmas film ever made. It’s often called a film about the “triumph of the human spirit,” a testament to the value of human life, and a reminder that—as Clarence writes to George Bailey at the film’s conclusion—”No man is a failure who has friends.” It is all of those things, but, more, it is one of American cinema’s most stinging and enduring portraits of despair.
It is impossible not to root for George Bailey. Time and again throughout the film he sets aside comfort and ambition for what he perceives as the common good. As a boy, he dives into a frozen pond to rescue his brother from drowning. He prevents his grieving boss at the local drug store from mistakenly delivering poison to a sick child and is beaten for the effort. George witnesses the miserly Mr. Potter harangue his father and barges in to defend his father’s honor. He forgoes his dream to build cities and travel the world when his late father’s bank is threatened by Potter, staying home to man the town that raised him. Years later, on his wedding day, George flees his impending honeymoon and dashes through the rain to weather a bank run, saving the working poor of Bedford Falls from Potter’s snares.
How is George Bailey repaid? His careless associate at the Bailey Building and Loan misplaces $8,000, exposing George to financial ruin, scandal, and prison time. The man who gave up everything he wanted and picked up his cross, fulfilling his duties to family and place, faces ruin and humiliation for the fault—of course—of another man.
He comes home to his family, who are stirring about in preparation for the coming Christmas party. Streamers are strewn about the banisters, tinsel draped across the tree. George’s daughter Janie plays a turgid rendition of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” preparing for a Christmas concert. The cacophony of Janie’s piano-playing, scattered yelps from the boys, the hustle and bustle throughout the house, and a ringing telephone become too much for George to bear. He tears down the toy-train set, which thunders to the ground beneath his feet. He tears and rips the decorations off the walls with fury. The piano stops and the children look on, crying as their father unravels. George stops, and turns around in silence. He faces his crying children and his stunned wife. His look of pain laced with regret is one of 20th-century film’s finest vignettes.
George considers suicide, but is saved by a guardian angel, Clarence, who shows him what life would have been like had he never been born. The ending is joyous—a chorus of townsfolk pay George’s debt and break out in song. It is enough to make a man cry. But the joy of the ending is only made possible by the despair that preceded it.
The best animated Christmas special—A Charlie Brown Christmas—is similarly melancholic. When you watch the 30-minute special, what stands out most is the gravity of the subject matter relative to its juvenile, almost-goofy aesthetic. From the get-go, Charlie Brown is depressed, and feels Christmas has been corrupted, commercialized, and stripped of its essential content. He knows with certainty that something essential to Christmas has been lost. “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”
He sees his friend-cum-armchair-psychiatrist Lucy, and says he is in “sad shape.” She gives him no remedy, save an invitation to direct the Christmas play.
Everyone around Charlie Brown is joyous, consumed by the pomp and festivities of the season. They revel in lights competitions and aluminum Christmas trees. They dance thoughtlessly to jazz music, request wads of cash in their letters to Santa, and seem unencumbered by Charlie’s existential crisis, only furthering his grief. Eventually, overcome with emotion, Charlie Brown commands the stage of the Christmas play and asks, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Linus takes the microphone and reads from the Gospel of Luke:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
Linus places the microphone down, and walks back. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
The sorrow and joy that mark Advent and Christmastide, respectively, are present in every great Christmas movie. Both films are trudging, sorrowful journeys, interrupted at their conclusions by moments of joy. Advent is a penitential period, a time to reflect on our mortality and prepare for the Parousia. Christmastide is celebratory—the long-awaited birth of the Kyrios, the rending of history in two, the Divine entrance into space and time. A trudging, sorrowful journey, interrupted at its conclusion by a moment of Joy.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this piece mistakenly claimed that a young George Bailey prevented Mr. Gower, the druggist in It’s a Wonderful Life, from committing suicide. The piece has been emended to note that, but for George’s intervention, Mr. Gower would have unintentionally poisoned a sick child.