I was in a café with my Russian friend Tanya on a bitterly cold and beautiful day. We were sharing a pot of ginger tea and talking about American holiday movies. Tanya has never seen It’s a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but she does know the story of A Christmas Carol and loves Bill Murray’s version, Scrooged!
The first three films evoke an American childhood, and I reminisced about how I watched them each holiday season with my parents. As I started to describe the storylines to Tanya, who was comparing the plots to Russian films from her childhood, I realized that all of these holiday films have “rewiring” as a theme. They are stories of stepping out of the habitual patterns of daily life to create a special atmosphere, a closeness, a spiritual ritual.
Taking a meal together in celebration, no matter how meager the table, no matter what your level of material wealth, can be a joyful experience that fosters a sense of strong community. Just witness the reaction of all the Whos in Whoville when they awake Christmas morning to find that the bitter Grinch has stolen all the Christmas presents and delicacies that we have come to think of as essential to celebrating this holiday. I remember my happy surprise as a young child the first time I saw the Whos’ reaction—they are joyful and celebratory all the same, for they know that the true heart of celebration is not material but spiritual. In seeing their reaction the Grinch is transformed, and we feel our own hearts opening with his.
As Tanya and I talked, I found myself thinking about how the Grinch story is in essence about the awakening of compassion—how someone who has lived for so long with a closed and angry heart can have a life-changing experience. It gives us hope.
We can also look at how, in It’s a Wonderful Life, a change of perspective rewires the way George Bailey perceives events in his life. Things that at first seemed like major disappointments become miraculous, happy occurrences when he realizes that just being at a certain place at a certain time made all the difference to the people in his life.
I also think of how Charlie Brown saved the scrawny brown pine tree by nurturing and decorating it into a symbol of joy. How often do we, in our consumerist blindness, want the biggest tree, the biggest turkey, the most lavish holiday gifts? Charlie Brown’s tree brings us back to what really matters. And we, just like the Peanuts gang, are rewired for the better.
I am grateful for these movies and love watching them again and again, for they remind us that it is easy to lose sight of what the holidays can really be for us: compassionate, unifying, joyful, filled with generosity and good will.
As Tanya and I continued our conversation, I thought again of George Bailey and his transformation in It’s a Wonderful Life when he finds his daughter Zuzu’s petals in his pocket and realizes he’s returned to his family, his friends, his home, and the town he knows and loves. My eyes watered as I tried to describe that pure joy, that perfect moment of gratitude and connection to the world. May all of us experience it every holiday season.