It’s a Wonderful Life: A Study of The White Picket Fence and the Life Less Chosen

So, in case you didn’t know, I grew up with Christmas. My dad is even one of those Bill O’Reilly “War on Christmas” guys. I love everything about Christmas: the carols, the pageantry, the food, the eggnog and most especially the tree. Each year when I was growing up, just like out of some wacky sitcom, my family would pick out a tree that was too big. Too big to tie to the top of the car, too big to fit into our ridiculously rickety tree stand. My dad would swear a lot the day we brought home the tree. But somehow my mom would always make it work. She had a handmade skirt that she always tied around the tree as the first order of business. Then we would listen to a TERRIBLE record of Christmas carols by, I believe, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as we decorated the tree. The worst song was called “Christmas Tree”, a cheesy, 80’s style ballad, complete with a 40 year old woman pretending to be a six-year-old girl. “ChhhhrrriiissstttmmAAAAS TTTRREEEE!!!”, she would sing, in what was supposed to be the winningly off-key style of an adorable little girl, but in reality was a banshee wail which would send our family pets running into another room in terror. Ah, memories.

My husband is Jewish and one of the things I gave up for loving him was Christmas. I do get a few things: I get to take our children to The Nutcracker and each year I watch “A Wonderful Life”, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. Inevitably, it makes me emotional for several reasons: the first is the regret that I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore. But the second and more powerful reason is that I don’t know that there has ever been a more accurate depiction of the American Dream in all of its complicated glory and splendor and difficulty.

I mean, who better embodies the 1% than Mr. Potter? So much about the movie is timeless: the ideals of small town life versus the constraints of ambition; the desire to travel, see the world and make it on your own versus the pressures and the constraints of family and romantic love.

George Bailey is seriously flawed: he’s often sarcastic, he tells it like it is, but he’s an idealist ultimately who realizes his family is the most crucial element of his life. Honestly, he reminds me so much of Darcy and that may be what I love most about him. But there is nothing sappy about his eventual realizations and the movie has very, very dark moments.

I feel the closest modern-day equivalent we have to this movie is “How I Met Your Mother”, which honestly does contrast both the joys but also the boredom and sacrifice involved in choosing a traditional married life with the glamorous, fun, yet sometimes sad “life less chosen” path: Robin clearly won’t have children and it is doubtful now that Barney will either. Although I’m pretty sure they will have an awesome and “legen-wait for it-dary” life. Mostly.

Anyway, I envy George Bailey his beautiful Victorian house and his many children and his friends and relations who bail him out of trouble in the end, because he has helped them so many times in the past. But he would envy me too: he’d envy me for my travels and adventures. He’d envy me for going to Paris and living in London and honeymooning in Africa.

And in the end, that’s the movie’s great point. We all have Wonderful Lives. Just by being alive and being in others’ lives and trying to do good.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”




Filed under Discovering joy, Family

17 responses to “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Study of The White Picket Fence and the Life Less Chosen

  1. It must be so hard to give up Christmas! There’s so much great Christmas stuff out there, like the Nutcracker. It’s all so pretty,and it’s everywhere. I grew up Jewish (still am) and I struggle with what’s okay to incorporate and what’s not.

    It sounds like you are doing a good job finding the joy in life!

  2. AP

    That is lovely. Merry Christmas!

  3. Mel

    Ssssshhh, don’t tell anyone but I’ve never seen “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (I’ve also never seen “How I Met Your Mother” but that seems less gasp-worthy). This post is making me rethink that.

  4. I love this post. I too, gave up a lifetime of Christmases and sometimes it’s REALLY hard to let that go. I miss ornaments and decorating the tree, lights on the hearth. I’m probably a little TOO excited about our electric menorah in the window. Do I secretly listen to Christmas music on the radio when I’m in the car by myself? Perhaps.

    “It’s a Wonderful Life” is in my top 10 favorite movies, of all time. Part of it is the ever-endearing Jimmy Stewart. But the other part of it this incredible love story, a life founded on and filled with love. I’ve always admired that. (“Buffalo gals won’t you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon…”)

    Wishing you a merry Christmas, even if it’s only in your heart like mine πŸ™‚

  5. I am in the process of negotiating Christmas. I married an atheist-anarchist-anti-commercialist-type who doesn’t believe in Christmas or really any other holiday. I adore the guy and even agree with many aspects of his rejection but, this year in particular, I want to keep certain things: family/friend gatherings, food, cookies, lights (it IS the solstice). I am trying to convince him that we can take what we want and build our own traditions. So far, not much progress.

    I LOVE that movie! It gets me crying every time.

  6. Rachel @ Eggs In A Row

    I read an article this week ( and I was torn. Where as I really get the whole “don’t assimilate, be proud to be Jewish” thing, I also think that we need to celebrate the fact that as Jews, we are allowed to celebrate what we want. Period. I’m Jewish and so is my hubby, but I can’t imagine that I would of been able to convert out of love. At all. So I give you (and Keiko) such props and say that you should celebrate Christmas, even if in your mind. Happy everything! xoxo

  7. Indeed!

    I knew there was a reason we are kindred spirits and sharing a love for the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one them. It is not just my favorite Christmas movie, but it is my all-time favorite movie. I can practically recite every line and I love everything that the story represents. Another modern day version that I also really like is “The Family Man” movie in which the main character gets a “glimpse” of a very different life that he might have had if he made different choices and had other priorities along the way.

    The end of your post really struck a chord with me, as earlier this week one of my extended family members took her own life. We weren’t close and actually never got to even meet in person, but seeing what so many of her loved ones are sharing on her Facebook “Wall” is driving home the point that we never fully grasp how many lives we touch and what an impact we can have on so many others (in ways we may not know). I wish so much that this woman could have seen (and maybe somehow she still can) how many people’s lives she changed for the better and how much those people love, care about and will forever miss her. Would it have kept her from doing what she did? I don’t know, but I wish we could find out.

    Anyway, I am sorry that you don’t get to celebrate all the things you love about Christmas anymore, but I respect your choice to do what works for you and really appreciate this post.

    P.S. Mel, if we lived closer I would be marching over to your place (or inviting you to mine) with my copy of It’s a Wonderful Life to watch with you! πŸ™‚

  8. I have not seen It’s a Wonderful Life in years. Since I am in a completely different season of my life since the last time It will be very interesting to watch it and see what I pick up on and how things make me feel now.

    I don’t think I would ever be able to give up celebrating Christmas. I know a lot of families who celebrate both. My guardian angel is one of them. She is Christian and her Husband is Jewish. Their kids are amazing and truly grateful they grew up with both.

  9. Esperanza

    I have so much to say about so many aspects of this post. For one thing, (as you know), I think people needing to give up Christmas for their Jewish partners is some bullshit. I’ve heard it’s a very common point of contention for inter-religious couples and I really don’t understand why. Maybe it’s because I’m not religious? πŸ˜‰ You are a bigger person than I for giving it up.

    As for A Wonderful Life, it’s a classic for a reason. Such a great film. One of my favorites and I try to watch it every year.

    And yet I’d never thought about it in the way you did here. This was my favorite part of the post:

    “Anyway, I envy George Bailey his beautiful Victorian house and his many children and his friends and relations who bail him out of trouble in the end, because he has helped them so many times in the past. But he would envy me too: he’d envy me for my travels and adventures. He’d envy me for going to Paris and living in London and honeymooning in Africa.”

    It’s true that George Bailey would envy you those things, even while he celebrated his family. It’s not even that the grass is always greener, it’s that so much of the grass is green and we still have to choose on which patch to build our lives. Unfortunately we can’t have it all so we make choices, sacrifices, we lose and we gain. And when there are two people to consider it’s even harder to figure out which patch of grass is the most lush for us.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I hope we can watch It’s a Wonderful Life next week! πŸ˜‰

  10. P.S. I was so inspired by your post/the quote from It’s a Wonderful Life that I decided to incorporate it into the end of our Christmas card (ironically, considering your previous post) this year! I credited “a friend” for reminding us about it. Anyway, thank you and I will be sure to email you a copy (we do it all electronically now, except for the 30 or so loved ones who are not tech savvy enough we still send hard copies too).

    • I received the card which was so lovely and am very touched you chose that quote. It’s maybe the most powerful thing anyone said in that movie. And it is so true.

      I hope we can watch this movie with Mel someday!

  11. Lut C.

    I can’t say my childhood memories of Christmas are as colorful as yours, still giving up on it completely, my goodness that must have been an adjustment.

  12. I know I’m late to reading this, but I love it just the same. I’m also happy that I was able to give you a little bit of (sneaky) Christmas this year. I feel like we may have started our own little tradition, and I’m thankful for that. And I enjoy your comparison to HIMYM. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life….I think it’s time I revisit it. If only I could stop watching Love Actually…..
    πŸ˜‰ hehehe.

  13. I LOVE It’s a Wonderful Life — thank you for adding your own perspective to it. When i was in university, one of the film studies profs would organize an annual screening (this was — and I am dating myself horribly here — before VCRs were common and the movie was shown ad nauseum on TV). He felt it was the best movie ever made. I start bawling from the moment George stands on that bridge saying, “Help me, Clarence… I want to live again” all the way through the last strains of “Auld Lang Syne.”

    I would love to introduce Mel to it too. ; )

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