IN 1943 Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story – The Greatest Gift – about an unhappy man called George Pratt.
A number of his friends told him how much they had enjoyed it, so he published it privately (remembering to protect it by personal copyright) in 1945: a copy of it then ended up in the hands of a senior executive from the RKO film studios. He bought it for $10,000 (an enormous sum at that time) and tried to work it into a project for Cary Grant, before selling it on to Frank Capra, one of Hollywood’s most famous and influential directors. The 1946 film version of The Greatest Gift is now known to most of us as It’s A Wonderful Life.
I think all of us have, at some time, felt like George Bailey, owner of the Bedford Falls Building and Loan Society. He’s always wanted to brush the dust of the town from his shoes and explore the world: but as every opportunity beckons another obstacle gets in the way, leaving this talented man to spend his life struggling along on a small salary while trying to keep his business and clients out of the greedy hands of an avaricious banker. And when, through no fault of his own, he faces bankruptcy and scandal, he contemplates suicide and wishes he had “never been born”.
But he discovers, after an angel – Clarence – grants his wish, what all of us should know: namely, that each of us effects and touches the lives of many of the people we meet. So when George Bailey sees what Bedford Falls becomes without his influence, decency and sense of moral and social responsibility, he begs to be given back his life.
It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the lynchpins of my life. I’m prone to depression and self-doubt and there are moments when I do rage against the world and wonder what the point of everything is? But there is a point, even if some of the setbacks are just to push us in the right direction. I’ve had some very dark moments in my life, moments so low and so dark that I would have been content to just disappear from the face of the earth: moments of such complete blackness that had there been an easy way of ending it all I would probably have taken it.
And yet if I had found that easy way of ending it all I would have missed so much, most of all my partner and daughters. So when I hear of yet another suicide somewhere in Northern Ireland (and particularly of a young man or woman) I wish I could be like Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life and get to them first. Get to them and show them that every life, every single human life, has a purpose.
I accept that it is trite, and particularly so for an atheist like me, to talk about Christmas being a ‘special time’ – and yet it is a special time. It is a time for prioritising our families, especially our children. It is a time when hardened old cynics, young and old, want their children, grandchildren and younger brothers and sisters to believe in the magic and mystery that is Santa. Somehow we just can’t bring ourselves to tell any child that their ‘Santa present’ arrived from Amazon or the local toy superstore. We want them to believe. Even if we have to struggle to find the money to put food on the table and presents under the tree, we still do it because we want them to believe.
And it’s maybe the only belief that unites most us here on Christmas Day. The people who protest about the removal of the Union Flag and the people who want the Union Flag removed will be sitting around Christmas trees tomorrow laughing and hugging as they watch the children open their presents. People who disagree on almost everything else in life join the great and wonderful conspiracy of Christmas: that great big happy conspiracy in which we all agree that children deserve magic and wonder.
Ask most people about Christmas and they can still remember very specific moments and gatherings, even from 60 or 70 years earlier. They can still remember that one gift which sums up a happier, more innocent moment of their lives. It’s what I call the ‘Rosebud moment’: that moment at the end of Citizen Kane when we discover that Kane’s dying word is a reference to a sledge he was given as a boy at Christmas.
Christians have, of course, their own magic and miracle to celebrate tomorrow: yet, oddly enough, even for them Santa plays his own very special part. He made no contribution 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but he will make a contribution in the early hours of Christmas morning. That’s as it should be. None of us should be deprived of the chance of the ‘Rosebud moment’, because it’s the memory of that moment which will steady us at critical and desperately difficult times later in life. And maybe some people, just before they lift a brick or form a word of hatred around their tongues, should also try and recall their own ‘Rosebud moment’.
Anyway, wherever you are and whatever you are doing over the next few days enjoy yourselves. If you are with children then be thankful and count your blessings. If you are separated or alone then look back on the ‘Rosebud moments’ of your life. And spare a thought for those who suffer from deep or clinical depression and either pray for them or send them the special Christmas wish that there will be a Clarence in their lives just when they most need him. Happy Christmas.
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