It’s a wonderful Christmas tradition

I first told this story in 2013. I tell many more stories like this one in my book, A Place to Start. It’s not too late to make it your Christmas present to yourself — you can buy and download the e-book right now. Click here to see all the places you can get my book.

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 30 years 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.

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

  1. J P Avatar

    Two come to mind. I am the present wrapper at my house and each year I do so as I play 2 or 3 ancient Christmas records on my still-functioning turntable. A wide selection of CDs or streaming music is available for all other occasions, but those old discs that remind me of childhood are a crucial part of my wrapping sessions.

    The second (and less rigidly followed) is waffles for breakfast on Christmas morning.

    And am I the only person who likes Miracle On 34th Street over It’s A Wonderful Life as the best Christmas movie ever?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, you are the only person! :-)

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    JP, ‘A Miracle on 34th Street’ is definitely in the running! My personal favorite, introduced to me by my younger sister, was Robert Mitchum in ‘Holiday Affair’. It has a slightly skewed view of Christmas, and contains the classic line: “…I’m so happy, if I was a dog, my tail would be waggin’…”. Priceless (and which my family uses on occasion). Similar missing/dead x-husband story line as ‘Miracle’.

    I think my best memories which are top in my mind (which of course, are not the ones when I was truly small), are my high-school and college years. Old enough to feel ‘touched’ and feel gratitude! Every time I think of Christmas from then, the first thought is always the cats and digs we had, pulling open and unwrapping their own presents! They were smart enough to see what was going on and knew what to do! My dad would also stick all the barely stickable bows on our old big dog.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We just watched Holiday Affair last night! It was our first time.

  3. DougD Avatar

    Our Christmas tradition was family dinner for 19 at my parents’ house Christmas Eve. After dinner we’d exchange gifts and sing carols accompanied by guitars, violin, and trumpet.
    Two years ago Mom was close to the end of her life, although unable to cook we set her chair up in the kitchen and she directed the meal prep. This year there’s nothing Christmas Eve, but the 4 of us will have dinner with Dad on the 25th.

    I guess I don’t like Christmas movies very much because I haven’t seen any of the films you’re talking about. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That family gathering sounds wonderful! As our grandparents and then our parents age and die, as our children grow up and move out, those big family traditions do change. It’s the normal cycle of life, but it’s sad to see the old ways pass on.

  4. Doug Anderson Avatar

    Every year, starting in 1972 when our older son was nine months old, I have taken a family portrait on Christmas Day. That first year there were just the three of us. The following year my wife’s parents were in the picture too. Over the years we have had as many as seven people in the picture and occasionally, as this year, it is just my wife and me.

    The forecast is for rain on Christmas Day here on the Jersey Shore so I will have my wife’s Nikon F6 set up on a tripod in the living room with a ceiling bounce flash. And just in case the weather turns nice I will also have my father’s Leica IIIc on the other tripod ready to go out onto the patio. 50mm lens and Ilford FP4 Plus for both.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      An annual portrait is a fine tradition! I’m sure it triggers all sorts of memories to look back through them and think of all the family changes.

  5. dionyb Avatar

    I do the lights on our tree, wrap almost all the presents, and lastly my family watches “Elf” on Christmas Day.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Solid. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  6. brandib1977 Avatar

    It’s not Christmas till I have listened to Nat King Cole’s Christmas album on the record player or watched “Its A Wonderful Life.” Oddly enough, I have resisted watching this and other Christmas movies I love this year but there’s still time. Perhaps tonight.

    The one tradition I love best is holiday baking. I have four tried and true cookie recipes from my late grandmother that I always make and a few new ones of my own. Once upon a time, they were packaged up to take to elderly neighbors. These folks are all gone now so I give them to my parents to enjoy throughout the season and to freeze some for later.

    This tradition began when I was about three and just old enough to sit at the kitchen table and help my mother ice the sugar cookies. Now I do pretty much all the work and she’s the one assisting!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, Jim!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wasn’t at all in the mood for Christmas this year as it approached. Margaret slyly started having us watch a Christmas movie every night and it really helped. Yesterday I had the day off so I made Christmas cookies all day. It’s not going to be as good or as full of a Christmas as I’m used to, given that I won’t be able to see my children, my mom, or my brother. But it will be Christmas.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Yes, it will be Christmas and we have the ability to make the best of it. I hope you’re able to still talk with your loved ones, share memories of happy days and look forward to the even happier days that are ahead.

  7. davepowell01 Avatar

    The Night Santa Came

    For reasons you’ll understand, I’ve told this story only to my wife. But when Jim asked Down the Road readers to share their own Christmas traditions, I felt the time had come! My deeply personal tradition began on Christmas Eve Night, 1964, when Santa Claus landed on our roof.

    I never believed in the Jolly Old Elf. Throughout my 50’s and 60’s childhood, mom and dad didn’t push him on my brother, two sisters and me. But I still enjoyed the primitive Santa trackers that WBNS TV 10 Columbus Ohio broadcast every Christmas Eve. They were fun and charming… especially the bits about NORAD Air Force jets escorting Santa on his perilous Cold-War flights. But I knew it was all fiction.

    Until the night when my 16-year-old psyche finally “had it” with dad. The poor thing suffered severe OCD about dust and dirt that he imagined floated in the air all around us every day. We (mom included) weren’t allowed out of the house except to go to school, grocery/drug stores and medical appointments. We rarely played outside, and never attended school games or parties, went on dates, or entertained friends and relatives at home. And when we DID have to leave home, dad sanitized us for hours before we could step back inside. (A more extensive cleaning followed every meal… before we could step from the kitchen into the living room.)

    I’d also learned to respect dad’s robust temper, so I put up with it all until the night before Christmas in 1964, when I finally mouthed off about “sitting through another Christmas Day waiting for him to sanitize his camera before we could open presents.” I barked how crazy it was, and dad went ballistic.

    Instead of nestling snug in our beds (visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads), we all cowered under our individual covers, while dad, shut in the bathroom, screamed that he was going to kill us all… that this would be our final Christmas.

    But after about an hour, his screams began to fade behind distant sleigh bells, jingling through the night toward our house. And their arose the clatter of many tiny hooves, as something landed on the roof above my bed. But like friends, relatives and neighbors, Santa didn’t enter the house. He remained on the roof for a long minute before simply taking off. And as his sleigh bells dimmed, they also dragged away my terror.

    I think about that night every Christmas. And 56 years down the road, I’ve come to believe I was visited by the Spirit that lives in us all. Our emotions are built to sense it as what we call “love.” But it’s also the fabric and power from which Creation is built. And whether one calls it God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Guardian Angel, Love, or even “something that doesn’t really exist,” I think it does. That it’s with us everywhere and at all times, and that back in 1964, it came in a comforting seasonal guise to bring the gifts I most needed in that horrible moment: Peace, Love, and Blessed, Blessed Sleep.


    The following morning, I discovered that no one else had heard the arrival. And six years later, I found a Tasco telescope we WERE to receive in 1964, stuffed behind our parents’ coats in the front hall closet. Its box was still store-mint (and most likely still un-sanitized). I took it back to college, cleaned and re-greased its solidified focusing gears, and used it in astronomy projects at Denison University. And to keep this story somewhat camera-related, I also found dad’s old Perfex 35 on top of the telescope. (I’d used the camera many years before to fabricate some fake flying saucer photos.) Maybe it was also a 1964 gift. But I left it there, and don’t know what became of it.

    Here’s wishing everyone… regardless of what’s going on right now… a Merry, Warm, and Peace-filled Christmas!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Dave, what a traumatic memory. I’m sorry you had to live through that. But I’m glad that Love reached you that day to help you overcome it.

      Here’s my story of the day Love touched me:

  8. Khurt Louis Williams Avatar

    Jim, there is exact one black person in this movie, not unusual for 1946. She appears in one scene where the black maid gets spanked back into her kitchen. It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t a very approachable movie for a modern and ethnically diverse America. You shouldn’t be surprised that it’s considered cliché and passé. It is.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Way to poop all over a film whose story has touched me since I was a boy!

  9. davepowell01 Avatar

    Happy New Year Jim and everyone! And thanks so much, Jim, for your nice reply and beautiful story link. I think your line: “Don’t forget me, don’t forget to come outside and sit alone with me, because I’m out here where life is” truly says it all. It beautifully captures our individual purposes for coming here… to BE “out here where life is” on our many individual paths, and to be of whatever help we can when others’ paths cross ours.

    In his fascinating “Conversations with God” books, Neale Donald Walsh says that when he asked God how to know what we should do with our lives, God replied (in paraphrase): “Just live your lives and keep your eyes open.” Including to pay attention to the humble, but oh so honorable, animals who share the earth with us!

    Good Bless One and All!


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Dave! I like the Walsh quote. That makes a lot of sense.

      1. davepowell01 Avatar

        You’re welcome Jim! Walsh’s first book was turned into the movie “Conversations with God”… which describes how Walsh progressed from an unemployed radio DJ living in a homeless tent camp by a lake, to an internationally published author and spiritual force. One of the most powerful moments in both the book and movie occurs when someone at a book signing asks: “If God were limited to just a few paragraphs, what message would He have for mankind?” After a thoughtful silence, Walsh answered: “God needs only five words: ‘YOU’VE GOT ME ALL WRONG!’ ”

        I’d come to believe the very same thing long before I’d ever heard of Walsh. And it’s the main reason I believe he’s legit.

        Have a great New Year!


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