IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A CHRISTMAS TALE FOR ALL-TIME

Just as there are only a small number of the very greatest symphonies, or paintings, or novels, so there are only a small number of truly great films. It’s A Wonderful Life is one of them, however—perhaps even the greatest film ever made. It has everything: good versus evil; liberal versus conservative (read: Tea Party) politics and economics; romance; idealism versus cynical selfishness; living and dying for ideals; love for the common man and contempt for the hard-bitten man of wealth and power; sacrificial love; the struggle to lead a good life helping others; faith and despair; and God’s providential care for those who selflessly work for His Kingdom on earth. And all this presented through believable, powerful, natural acting by everyone—James Stewart, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore, Beluha Bondi, Ward Bond, among many others. The music is by the peerless Dimitri Tiomkin, and the film is directed by one of America’s greatest directors, Frank Capra.

Here on film, made in 1946, is our current Tea Party politics portrayed in the guise of Mr. Potter, on a collision course with Democrats, in the guise of the Bailey family, whose nickel-and-dime savings and loan enables the little man to own a home and leave Potter’s slums. It’s a film we love to watch but hate to emulate: for it means that Profit is NOT king; indeed, that life is far more than mere profit, and that helping the working man obtain a house is more important than a bank’s bottom-line. It’s an iconic film whose message we steadfastly ignore, all the while praising the film. It’s a film Conservatives love to hate—or love in spite of its Christian message that people must come before profit; and that the health of one’s soul is more important than the size of one’s bank account—not a message in accord with the Tea Party’s  socio-economic policy—or Trumps’ vision of America.

The film is almost 70 years old, yet its message is as fresh as a morning breeze and profound as life itself. Capra knew his Bible. He translated the New Testament into film—and its power to move one’s soul, to live like a Bailey and not a Potter (or Trump, or Murdoch, or Ryan), to fight for God’s kingdom on earth and not Satan’s (Potter), makes this a film for the ages—but most appropriately a film for the Christmas season, where love of neighbor trumps love of money and power, just as the Christ child will in time conquer darkness and sin.   It’s a film after God’s own heart precisely because it reveals God’s own heart. Do we get the message?—love before profit. Love. Love. Love.

Len Sive Jr.

FROM CHRISTIAN LOVE TO COMMERCIALIZATION: THE CHANGING TIDES OF HOLIDAY CHEER

When I was a boy, many a holiday season ago, there was a palpable sense of “holiday cheer” from Thanksgiving to Christmas through to the New Year: people smiled and laughed;  opened doors for one another and helped people cross the street; greeted strangers with a warm smile and a wave; kept the elevator door open for that slow moving senior citizen; always tipped lavishly; and made church services an integral part of the  holiday season—joyously and gratefully, as people counted their several  blessings throughout the holiday season.

Thanksgiving was, uniquely, its own deeply memorable holiday as well as the forerunner to Christmas—a harbinger of Christmas, so to speak. For us, the focus on Thanksgiving was family and friends. And our family’s best friends, the Craigs, usually  joined us (or we them)—which trebled our joy, for Pete and Virginia were wonderfully urbane, contagiously witty, warm, caring,  kind, and just plain fun to be around.

People—friends, family— dominated the holiday. We watched no TV. We sat and talked for hours—first over mountains of roast Turkey, stuffing (‘wet and dry’), cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn bread freshly baked, and pumpkin pie. Then when dinner was over we reassembled in the living room for more conversation, in the enjoyment of each other.  For us—and for me— this was heaven itself: People loving people.

Christmas was more strictly a family affair (the Craigs usually visited us on the 26th  or thereabouts). It began with a midnight church service on Christmas Eve, then the Christmas Day service, and, in our church, properly ended with The Boar’s Head Festival days later—a huge, magnificent and unforgettable costume-and-carol pageant (copied from England) celebrating the Christ infant’s coming to bring light and joy to a dark and sinful world—which was put on, properly, after Christmas and before the celebration of the New Year.

Christmas gifts were not just received with joy but given with joy; old animosities and hurts were entirely forgotten if not forgiven; and though Santa had, once again, managed somehow to work his way down then up again in our old chimney in the bringing of gifts—it was the birth of the Christ child, the symbol of love and forgiveness and goodness for all mankind, which ran like a golden thread all through the holiday season, reinforced by sermon and carol and liturgy. In short, it was a blessed holiday, whose effects outlasted the holiday itself.  Yes, for one brief shining moment during the year, the cosmos radiated love, and forgiveness, and good cheer…We all genuinely felt better, more humane, happier, more content.

Then in the 60’s began the slow commercialization—the corporatization—of the holidays, aided by TV with its hugely profitable advertising. With what societal result? Thanksgiving and Christmas, once beacons of love and joy, have become subservient to holiday sporting affairs; the underlying religious basis for the holidays has been transmogrified in a larger realm of commercial activity whose end is profit–and more profit. Even the symbols of Christmas—the crèche, the Christ infant, the three Wise men—in many cases have been outlawed on public property. Conversation and deep, meaningful dialogue  have devolved into a mere collective rooting for one’s team to win; and Christian love into the camaraderie of ‘high-fiving’ over a big play. The Christ child, in short, has been smuggled out of the season altogether by Corporate America.

Again, with what general societal result? People now regularly get into fights , and even killed, at sporting events; one’s personality—and especially one’s free time—and the very clothing on one’s back—are now tied to a sport’s team or a specific player. Women, I remember, used to dress and act like women. Now they dress and act like male athletes. People’s attire—and identity— are tied, if not to sports then to a corporate Logos. And to add insult to injury we are obsessed with (media-created) celebrity, which is nothing but the cooked-up hype of Corporate America given as pablum to a mindless and de-spiritualized society.  We have seen a tectonic shift away from spiritual inwardness to mere showy outwardness, from Love to Thingness.

“Celebrity” is nothing but the advertising of a person: the media create celebrity, hype it, and control it—in order to sell things to a public only too willing to buy. What great deed did Paris Hilton do to result in all that media attention?—Nothing. But it certainly made the Rupert Murdochs of the media world richer.

Today, to state the obvious, technology is in the ascendant. People have a text conversation while ignoring the person they are sitting with! Game-playing takes precedence over thinking and dialoging. Cell phones and gaming both have left society stupider and shallower.

So, we have in only a few decades gone from deep spiritual significance in the meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas to the worship of meaningless sporting events in our new cathedral called the stadium, with its high priest the coach and its apostles the players. Our identity and personality used to have some inner meaning and value, and bring real joy. Now it’s all outward glitter and inward emptiness—texting with nothing to say; game-addiction with nothing to show for the hours and years wasted.

Corporate America, in its single-minded, all-consuming drive for more and more profit, has led us all astray, like a Pied Piper—and we, like the silly children in the story, have followed this Piper even to our own intellectual and spiritual degradation.

Len Sive Jr