George Bailey and the Embrace of Home

A personal reflection on the 70th anniversary of It's a Wonderful Life.

By Esther O'Reilly Published on December 21, 2016

This year marks the 70th birthday of an American classic. Three generations have grown up with little George Bailey. His is a story not without pain, yet ultimately not without hope. It’s a Wonderful Life is about a good many things. But ultimately, it is about home.

Young George is restless, ambitious, impatient to shake the dust of his home off his feet. Then, slowly, one by one, he lays his dreams to rest. There is joy to be found in his life, to be sure, but not the kind he ever expected. Day by day, year by year, it requires a continual outpouring, an emptying of himself, until the disaster that leaves him believing there is no more of himself left to give. It is here that we find him, on Christmas Eve (of all eves!), the best of men, contemplating the unthinkable.

Thus, for the millionth time, I wept, exulted and triumphed with George Bailey.

“Little Gidding”

I re-discovered this film with fresh eyes in my senior year of high school. The last author I had studied in my literature course was T. S. Eliot. We finished off with his Four Quartets, and “Little Gidding” was burning especially bright in memory.

Thus, for the millionth time, I wept, exulted and triumphed with George Bailey. Once again, I followed his Dickensian progression through an alternate, George-less reality, culminating in the revelation that life, in its essence, is wonderful.

I laughed fondly at the ending sequence where he careens giddily through Bedford Falls, nearly slipping and falling in his excitement as he calls out a Christmas greeting to anyone with ears to hear. I watched him shower Mary’s face with kisses and blunder down the stairs with all his children in tow, giggling like a man who knows a great secret. And all at once, I understood what Eliot meant when he wrote these words: “We shall not cease from exploration./And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

“World Traveler”

Here another artist enters the picture, because at the same time, I had fallen in love with a song by Andrew Peterson called “World Traveler,” which chronicles the end of his own exploring. Like George, Andrew was a restless youth who yearned to “see the world” but found something infinitely better. He thought the road was calling to him, but now he walks “the hills of the human soul of a tender girl.”

Each time he sings the refrain, “I want to travel the world,” it takes on fresh meaning. In one verse, he watches his children sleeping, “the image of the Maker” lying “right here beneath my roof tonight.” So hold on tight, he says. “I’m a world traveler.” For George Bailey and Andrew Peterson both, there are “uncharted lands” yet to conquer, seas yet to sail, galaxies yet to discover, “right beneath our feet, all this time, all this time…”

So it was that the film and song were married in my mind and in my editing software. And in the adventures of George and Andrew, I saw my own travels, my own exploration reflected back to me.

The Road Home

Even now, I close my eyes and see Christmas on my street. I see our party of carolers, tramping and panting through the neighborhood. I see the children scooping up and eating caked masses of snow. I see the old man elbowing his way past his grown children to open the screen door and join us on his porch step. What was it we were singing? Was it “Angels We Have Heard On High?” “O Come All Ye Faithful?” I can’t remember. I only remember how he listened as we sang.

These are shades of Christmas present. I look again and see the shades of Christmas past. I see the soldier of the Second Great War and his wife in the next house over. I see the widow bent over double, offering us chocolate truffles with raspberry riches inside. They left my street years ago, and yet I see them still.

And thus the fabric of our lives is woven, each with its own pattern of timeless moments. It is the drawing of the same love, the voice of the same calling that leads us onward, as it leads George Bailey. It is the bannister knob that never did know its place. It is an endlessly practiced “Hark the Herald” finally coming out just right under small, determined fingers. It is the brother home from war, throwing his head back with laughing eyes, singing loud and long and lustily as young men do. It is the taxi driver who stands just behind to clap him on the shoulder. It is the fixed point in the turning world. It is “quick, now, here, now, always,” where all manner of thing is very well.

So George makes his beginning. So Andrew makes his. So I make mine. And so we all come home, to know it for the first time.

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