It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie that ignores Christmas for quite a while--a real improvement, because for Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey Christmas is not merely another episode, or the opportunity to provide a conveniently heart-warming finale; it forms the arena for the deciding moment in George's life. And this moment is not the granting of a Christmas wish, but the relinquishing of a wish to be--actually, to have ever been at all. Ah, what bliss, to be allowed to meander off into stillness, quietude, and eventual nothingness--like the Buddha--a cozy paradox where wakefulness is no longer required because there is no one to awaken. Like the clouds and the birds in "The Walrus and the Carpenter," one would not see George, for there would be no George to see.
Of course, George is not allowed to not-be. He has lives to save, including his own, all of them hanging by the thread of a small sum of money, spelling real ruin and sending George into a violent panic, as wide-eyed and horrific as any Greek mask of tragedy, averted only by a deus ex machina--or would that be populus ex machina, as his neighbors literally heap his salvation before him? And so the moment is both joyful and hysterical, with barely enough time to hear the bell tinkling out Clarence the angel's ascendancy. George must go on; the evidence of his necessity is too overwhelming, almost as shocking as George's earlier urge to tear it all apart.
I think, though, that the movie is about something more than a close call. It insists that Christmas is a culminating moment, or better yet, a fitting space to grant wishes made with conviction and in haste. The scene in the snow is almost like Robert Frost's snowy woods--except George’s snow does not distract him from promises to keep, but punctuates those promises with an exclamation point, and promises further promises, unbroken from the start of Everything and eternally kept. This is the faith to which this movie testifies. Clarence and his twinkly eyes and all that are not where faith rests; they are cute catalysts to get George careening down Main Street, delirious--first with pain, and then joy. And as any moralist will tell you, it's always pain first--along the long road to what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls "the habit of perfection"; the fact that George plops into all kinds of holes because of that belief does not deter him--nor does it detract from the value of cultivating that habit in his drafty, perfect little front room.