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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  • Steve Faber

    Very well done!!

  • Christian Cowboy

    Thank You for reminding me what is really important and how we touch others each and every day of our lives. We miss God so many times working in our lives and around us in others lives because we are looking for the next Big Thing – striving for what the world says is important.
    Merry Christmas everyone!

  • galatians328

    Thank you for this lovely meditation.

    You encourage every reader to meditate on ‘the first ‘Christmas’.

    That would be a lovely and important curated series, for example, that would not be random blogging, but a dialogical effort of spiritual development and of unity-making. We presume that The Stream has an interest in both: spiritual development, and building unity among Christians, and/or among Americans, and/or among readers.

    We request that The stream do more such dialogical work. Can you forward that along dear writer?

    When we meditate on ‘the first ‘Christmas’,

    we see the refugee family, Joseph and Mary, in distress, and later the infant Jesus, delivered into their distress, ancient Israelites, oppressed by a corrupt authoritarian Jewish government and demagogue head of state in political alliances with corrupt religious authorities, both under the thumb of a World-dominating Satanic hegemony.

    and then we see today’s millions of refugees, many of them also – as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were – NOT WHITE PEOPLE, NOT PEOPLE OF PRIVILEGE, NOT PEOPLE IN RELATIVE LUXURY CONTINENTS AWAY from war … but, rather, people in immediate danger of war, dictatorial oppression, and stripping away of respect for their religious faith – just as are millions of Syrian and other Muslims and Christians

    also, like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus who fled the Satanic carnage of Herod’s massacre of the innocents (countless children and unborn infants!) who fled to a safe place, Egypt, we see millions of refugees fleeing the carnage – killing countless children and unborn infants! – in the carpet bombing engineered by Satanic Lord Putin

    we see the dear Holy Family adored by both the rough poor shepherds, in rags and smelling of livestock AND the soft-handed, wealthy and well educated elite Magi; shepherds and Magi – NON-CHRISTIANS but still people God so loved that God send angels, visions, and wisdom to them

    and then we see the many Christians today are utterly hateful to non-Christians, and utterly selfish about what they have from God – despite the facts in the story of the Nativity: that non-Christians were so beloved by God that God endowed them with the unique grace of touching the infant Lord Jesus Christ.

    How ashamed should Christians be, therefore, when we meditate on the ACTUAL FACTS of Jesus’ Nativity and of the Holy Family? and how much should we repent from greedy materialistic Capitalism, hate, White Supremacy, willful ignorance and intentional prejudice, bearing false witness against non-Christians … or anyone, and other idolatry, abomination and sin?

    • Mo86

      LOL! Mary and Joseph were not refugees. You’d know that if you’d ever actually read the Bible.

      How dare you use Christ’s name and Word to further your racist, America-hating, leftist filth?

      • galatians328

        Fools fail to investigate the meanings of words. We frequently etymologies to discern wise uses of words. For example ‘refugee’ : Late 17th century: from French réfugié gone in search of refuge, past participle of ( se) réfugier, from refuge (see refuge). Joseph and Mary were ‘going to Bethlehem in search of close family ties’. Nazareth was in Galilee; Bethlehem in Judea. The Jewish historian Josephus confirms that a general taxation was indeed overseen by Cyrenius (Quirinius). He notes, however, that Cyrenius was appointed as Governor of the province of Syria when the Romans deposed Archelaus (Herod the Great’s son) as ruler of Judaea in 6AD. Judaea was then taken under direct Roman rule and incorporated into the Roman province of Syria. This resulted in a revolt led by Judas of Gamala (‘Judas the Galilean’), a Jewish zealot (see Acts 5:37). As Jesus was born in 6 or 5BC, this Roman census occurred eleven or twelve years after his birth. As Jesus was born while Herod the Great was King of Judaea, no Roman governor of Syria would have had the jurisdiction to organise a census and general taxation in Judaea at the time of Jesus’s birth.
        Whatever the reason, Joseph made the decision to return to his family home in Bethlehem in time for his newly betrothed wife to give birth amongst his close relatives. Stop being a fool. There is no ‘left’ wing or ‘right’ wing politics in the Gospel. Jesus of Nazareth and this family were ancient Israelites NOT WHITE PEOPLE. They certainly were not Europeans or Americans, and you are an idiot before the Bible to suggest anything like that. By denying that the Holy Family were NOT WHITE PEOPLE but rather most likely dark red/brown skin colored, and dos likely with dark kinky/curly hair, upstairs and downstairs, and fully human persons with the genetic lineage of ancient Israelites, you are denying the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation and venturing into heresy! BE ALERT! God is coming and won’t like heretics who DENY JESUS HUMANITY.

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