As Bart Simpson once said, we all seem to have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Santa.
Personally, I don’t hold religious beliefs, but I respect those who do. Faith is a very powerful conviction, and those who believe in the birth of Christ, the son of God, clearly derive great benefit from their religion. For practising Christians the ‘season of goodwill’ is about celebrating a miracle and a core tenet of their beliefs.
However, in the 21st Century, Christmas has been almost entirely taken-over by capitalist commercialisation, the pursuit of profit and, on the part of the general public, a belief that happiness can be achieved through the giving and receiving of largely expensive presents.
Before anyone begins to think this article is a ‘bah humbug’ socialist denunciation of the ‘joy of Christmas’ in its various forms, let me state for the record that I enjoy the festive season. I succumb to the commercialisation, I love the feeling of togetherness when families and friends share gifts and, more importantly, time. I have even attended midnight Carol services in local churches, both Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland. Does that make me a hypocrite?
If I am, then there are a lot of us around.
Whatever our personal beliefs, Christmas offers an opportunity to reflect on our lives and to spend time with the people who matter most to us. Scots, in particular, have perfected the extension of the ‘feel good’ atmosphere of the festive season by carrying it through Hogmanay and into the New Year. But, of course, for some there is little respite from the struggle that life has become.
Parents who are unemployed will do whatever it takes to give their children a Christmas, which often involves spending money they don’t have. Loan sharks, including those who advertise on television, will be only too happy to offer the cash for presents. Come the cold light of January, however, the loan will have to be repaid, and for those already-struggling parents the depressing spiral into unaffordable and unrepayable debt becomes a reality. In an increasing number of households, the joy of Christmas doesn’t last long.
Some years ago I came across a video in the discount bin of the Woolworths store in Saltcoats. It was marked-down to £1.00, so was worth buying. The film was one I had seen many years before and it had made a big impact on me, so I parted with a pound and took home a copy of It’s A Wonderful Life.
Since then, the 1946 movie has become fashionable. It’s now cool to say It’s A Wonderful Life is one of your favourite films, but I wonder how many of the recently-acquired fans actually understand the message of the story.
On the face of it, It’s A Wonderful Life is a feel-good Christmas story, with the added religious element of an angel (second-class) earning his wings through helping George Bailey, the story’s main character. However, there is a much deeper dimension to the film, one for which the director, Frank Capra, was denounced by Hollywood right-wingers and US government agencies as ‘a socialist’ and ‘communist sympathiser’.
It’s A Wonderful Life, while culminating in a happy ending set around Christmas-time, actually tells a story of how much each of us touches the lives of others. We may be individuals, but how we live our lives and the actions we take impact on our family members, our friends and our communities. In one of the film’s classic scenes, George Bailey decides it would have been better for everyone if he had never been born. On a blizzard-swept bridge, George decides to commit suicide by jumping into the icy river below. However, he is rescued by Clarence Odbody, who we later discover is an angel not yet ‘fully qualified’ and so without his wings.
Clarence then shows George how things would have been if he really had not been born. Every member of his family, his friends and people they in turn interacted with would have been affected, many adversely, if George had never existed. The message is that, often without even knowing it, we, as individuals, contribute to the greater good of our families, communities and society.
The other main storyline in It’s A Wonderful Life involves the triumph of the community-backed Building & Loan Company over the capitalist, profit-driven bank operated by the corrupt Mr Potter.
Behind the human story and the feel-good Christmas message lies a narrative about socialism versus capitalism, a story that has never been more relevant than today. The impact each of us makes on others, and the huge shared benefits of working together for the greater good, produce a better life and a fairer society when compared to the inequality and struggle of the majority that results from the capitalist system operated by the Mr Potters of the world.
Whatever your circumstances and beliefs, I hope you have a great Christmas – and if you get a chance over the festive season, watch It’s A Wonderful Life, preferably on Christmas Eve. Whether or not you endorse the film’s socialist message, you can’t fail to enjoy the feel-good Christmas mood it generates.