I had already been dating my now-husband for several years when it came to light that he had never seen It's a Wonderful Life. In my family, that's like saying you haven't tasted ice cream or you don't know who Elvis is (I'm from Tennessee). Quotes from the film are traded like currency between my siblings, and we'll never pass up a moment to prompt a round of drinks with "Mr. Martini, how 'bout some wine?" or to throw off Annie's line at the end of the film: "I've been saving this money for a di-vorce if ever I get a husband!"
It was an oversight that had to be fixed for the sake of our relationship. Fortunately, the Frank Capra classic is on repeatedly every December (though we must never speak of the terrible colorized version). It's as much an annual tradition as nativity scenes and fir trees and Mariah Carrey's Christmas album. I'd even go so far as to claim that after 70 years, it's part of the cultural fabric of the holidays in this country.
That said, even though AFI named it the "Most Inspiring Movie of All Time," It's a Wonderful Life is hardly filled with joy and cheer. For starters, the whole premise revolves around George Bailey's botched suicide attempt. Played by Jimmy Stewart in his prime, Bailey is a dutiful everyman. He had dreams of traveling and education and adventure, and yet he never made it out of the small town of Bedford Falls; familial loyalty held him back.
And when money goes missing from his family's building and loan business—on the day the bank examiners are coming, no less—and it occurs to him that his life insurance policy could be enough to settle the debt, he is defeated and despondent enough to consider an idea planted by the villainous Mr. Potter, a fat-fingered businessman who feels surprisingly relevant in the context of modern politics.
As George contemplates taking his own life by jumping into a frigid river on Christmas Eve, a twinkly embodiment of Joseph (depicted as a flashing light in a stunning display of dated special effects) asks angel-in-training Clarence to plunge into the stream first. George jumps in to save Clarence, instead of diving in to kill himself.
Rudolph and Frosty, this is not.
The plot that follows is now so often parodied it has become its own trope: Clarence gives George the gift of seeing what life would be like if he had never been born, and the ripple effect of one man's actions becomes clear.
He didn't save his brother's life when they were children, so his brother didn't become a hero in World War II. George never met his wife, Mary, and so she ended up an old maid. The idyllic Bedford Falls became instead "Pottersville," overrun with nightclubs and pawn shops and debauchery. You get the idea.
"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives," muses Clarence, and George pleads to go back. "I don't care what happens to me," he cries. "Get me back to my wife and kids...I want to live again."
The hero in this story is hardly perfect, but I think that's why it endures. George is verbally abusive to his wife, his children, his neighbors, and friends. He copes with his problems with heavy drinking and proceeds to wrap his car around a historic tree. And yet, even he is worthy of redemption. In his time of greatest need, his community steps in to shoulder the burden.
So get your fill of Elf and White Christmas and Ralphie's dreams of a Red Ryder BB Gun, but save a spot in your DVR for It's a Wonderful Life. Because after a year like 2016, we could all stand to be reminded that when someone is struggling, it's our job to help them.
As Clarence says, "No man is a failure who has friends."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.