It’s a wonderful Christmas tradition

What’s your favorite personal Christmas tradition?


Mine is to watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life. It is my favorite movie – and has been for so long that I’ve watched it pass from obscurity to being discovered and well loved. Now I’m seeing it start to be considered cliché and passé. But that won’t deter me from watching it.

I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life when I was 11 or 12. I was spending Christmas with my grandparents at their home in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa’s big antenna picked up stations all over Michigan, and I liked to watch the late shows after everyone else had gone to bed. I came upon this film while flipping channels. I was quickly drawn into the story of George Bailey, a well-known and -loved little guy of modest means who plays the hero against a wealthy and patently evil man named Potter. It’s simplistic and sentimental, but I’m a sentimental man. I fell in love with the film.

TV made It’s a Wonderful Life popular. Even though the film was nominated for several Academy Awards after its 1946 release, it did poorly at the box office and lost money. But after a 1974 copyright snafu put the film in the public domain, television stations everywhere began airing it each Christmas and the film caught on. By the late 1980s it had become an enduring classic.

Through the 1980s I searched for it on TV every Christmas season. Some years I came upon it, and some years I didn’t. Then I received a VHS copy as a gift, and later I bought a DVD copy, and now I never miss it. Meanwhile, a court decision placed the film back under copyright, and now the only place you can see it on TV is NBC every Christmas Eve.

My most bittersweet memory of watching this film was at Christmas in 1987. A beautiful old theater in my hometown was showing the film one night. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see the film in such a wonderful environment on a big screen and share it with an audience. But then my grandmother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I had been very close to her, and her death tore me up something fierce. I wanted to be alone, but I went to see the film anyway. I found a seat near the back and tried to put away my grief for a little while. It worked right up until the end, when George Bailey is rescued by all of this friends. I always tear up a little, but that night I sobbed openly.

I love how watching the film puts me in touch with my memories of my grandparents, who have been gone for more than a quarter century now. They were of the same era as fictional George Bailey; when this film was released, they has been married ten years and their third child, a daughter, my mother, was still in diapers.

If you have a Christmas tradition that holds special meaning for you or that is something you do just for yourself, please tell about it in the comments.

It’s not Christmas at my house until we break out the Johnny Mathis. Read about it.


10 responses to “It’s a wonderful Christmas tradition”

  1. Tori Nelson Avatar

    Neat how one movie can carry with it so many memories/ life events!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This one is certainly packed for me!

  2. John Smith Avatar
    John Smith

    When I was a kid, it was watching a Charlie Brown Christmas on CBS. It was on once. Everyone knew when it was on. No one missed it. We sat in our pajamas with the little feet in them, crossed legged in front of the Philco or the Zenith or the Sylvania and we watched Linus tell Charlie Brown what Christmas really means. And it meant that Christmas, officially, really, really was here.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ah yes! It was the same for my family when I was small. We sat in front of our RCA Victor and, later, when we finally got color television, our GE.

  3. John Smith Avatar
    John Smith

    Gosh! To think we used to make consumer electronics in the United States!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Heh, no kidding. Our RCA was probably made right here in Indiana, at the Bloomington plant.

  4. Christopher Smith Avatar
    Christopher Smith

    In our house it’s going to Midnight Mass as our church has the most wonderful display of Christmas Trees about 40 in all all decorated and lit up by different local organisations. And the mass id done by candel light.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How nice! My branch of Christianity doesn’t do midnight services — we met Christmas Eve at 6 pm instead.

  5. Melissa Waggoner Dieckmann Avatar

    With all of the Christmas preparations, I’m a bit behind on my blog reading so I just read this post. Every year our family would get together throughout December and bake/cook. Since my mother’s family is Polish, my most enduring memories are of making kieflies and kielbasa for Christmas dinner.

    Christmas Eve, we would attend the Children’s Mass at our parish, then gather at my busia’s house for a meal (and our first taste of the homemade kielbasa) and some caroling, then we’d head back out for Midnight Mass (my mom was in the choir) and then crawl into bed for a few hours of sleep. On Christmas Day, we’d open presents at the house with our immediate family, then head to Christmas Day Mass to hand out presents to the attendees (usually an ornament). Then it was off to the big Polish family Christmas and more kielbasa and cookies.

    My memories of Christmas are all filled with laughter, love and food – and of course, my crazy, dysfunctional family.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was interesting as a non-Pole to grow up in such a Polish town as South Bend. I watched some of the traditions as an outsider and always admired the family closeness they created.

      My family is German and American Indian, with I guess some Scotch thrown in there somewhere. Dad’s from West Virginia and Mom is native to South Bend.

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