A tale of two Christmas movies


John Lennon asked us all a question many years ago: So this is Christmas, and what have you done?
The end of the year holds so much significance in our lives. Amid Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, we reflect on all we’ve done in the past year, and think about the changes we need to make in the new year.
Maybe, just maybe, the media we consume during the holidays plays a role in this. After all, every December, many of us dust off old DVDs and VHS tapes of our favorite seasonal classics. I never miss a year of watching those Claymation specials, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and more. They’re charming, and fun for the whole family.
Two Christmas tales, however, stand out, having more than stood the test of time. The 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” and various motion picture iterations of Charles Dickens’s novella “A Christmas Carol” find their way onto millions of Americans’ televisions every year.
Both of these films ask their viewers important questions, variations on John Lennon’s, What have you done?

“It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the tale of George Bailey, a man who has lived an entirely selfless life. Bailey lost his hearing saving his brother from drowning in his childhood. He stopped a pharmacist from mixing bad drugs. He stopped the movie’s villain, Henry Potter, from turning their quaint town of Bedford Falls into raunchy slums. But due to a botched money exchange, Bailey suddenly finds himself $8,000 in debt and with a warrant out for his arrest.
He contemplates suicide, but a guardian angel intervenes to stop him. Seeing all the trouble he’s causing his family, Bailey wishes he was never born. So the guardian angel shows him a world in which he was never born.
Without the good he has done, Bailey sees horrors beyond his comprehension, and upon returning to his real world, he is overjoyed, and unburdened by his now seemingly insignificant problems. He realizes he has had a wonderful life, and the town raises the money he needs. In the end, his selfless acts are rewarded.
“A Christmas Carol” tells a different tale. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly, greedy banker who has only ever acted for himself. He broke up with his fiancée because he was focused only on his career. He mistreats his secretary, Bob Cratchit, who has a family to feed. Scrooge despises Christmas, and is a selfish curmudgeon.
One night, four spirits visit him, showing him the damage he has caused and how he will be remembered when he dies. Scrooge is the opposite of George Bailey: No one would come to his aid if he needed it, and no one will mourn him when he’s gone.
Shown the world he has helped shape, Scrooge, too, sees horrors beyond his comprehension, and, returned to his real world, he pledges to change his ways and live a life of charity.
Why do these films resonate so strongly? They both ask us what we have done.
This year I watched “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” back to back, Scrooge one night and George Bailey the next. Each year I’m reminded of how profound these stories are in comparison to their Christmas season contemporaries. After watching, I’m lost in thought. After Scrooge, I ask myself, what bad things have I done? How can I do better? How has my world been affected by the bad I’ve done?
After watching Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, I ask myself the opposite questions. What good things have I done? How can I keep at it? How has my world been affected by the good I’ve done?
In both cases — like both lead characters — I find myself striving to be more appreciative of what I have, and aiming to be a better person.
I wonder whether John Lennon had these two stories in mind when he asked us all what we have done. I like to think he was as moved by them as so many millions of us are each Christmas. And what better question to ask ourselves as we gather with our families, reflect on the year just past and think ahead to the future?

Michael Malaszczyk is a Herald reporter covering Wantagh and Seaford. Comments about this column? mmalaszczyk@liherald.com.