On paper, of course, the 1946 fantasy doesn’t sound very Christmassy: Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has so many problems that he decides to kill himself on Christmas Eve. As he prepares to jump from the bridge in Bedford Falls, though, he is visited by an angel named Clarence who shows him the true importance of his life.
“Strange, isn’t it?” notes Henry Travers’ Clarence. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
The message of It’s A Wonderful Life, then, is clear: that we should all take a moment to reflect on our lives, on the bonds we’ve forged with others, and how blessed we truly are.
And, for many years, some semblance of this same message could be found tied like ribbons to the gift that is every Christmas movie.
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We saw it in the many, many, many adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Home Alone, when Kevin, after days spent revelling in his newfound freedom, realises that reuniting with his family is the greatest gift of all. In The Grinch, when every single Who in Whoville concludes that the holidays aren’t about the presents and the ostentatious light displays, but the people you spend them with.
We even saw it in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, when Jack Skellington determines that the life he thought he’d grown so tired of is, actually, pretty damn perfect.
Over time, though, this attainable festive fantasy – and its heavy emphasis on selfless acceptance – has given way to something… well, to something very different.
Done? Then you’ll no doubt have noticed that Christmas, nowadays, looks very different to that laid out in It’s A Wonderful Life. Because the end goal of these movies isn’t acceptance: it’s escapism, pure and simple.
Take The Princess Switch franchise, for example, in which a baker (Vanessa Hudgens) switches places with her duchess doppelganger (also Vanessa Hudgens), only to wind up falling for a prince, winning his heart, securing a wedding proposal, and becoming a real life princess.
Then there’s A Christmas Prince, in which an aspiring journalist is sent abroad to get the scoop on a dashing prince who’s poised to be king, only to wind up falling for him, winning his heart, securing a wedding proposal, and becoming a real life princess.
And let’s not forget Crown For Christmas, in which an American hotel maid is hired as a royal governess, only to wind up falling for the king (hey, it’s about time we had a royal upgrade), winning his heart, securing a… well, you get the picture by this point.
Even when it isn’t all princes and proposals, today’s Christmas films tend to follow a pretty simplistic structure: a woman, sick and tired of her busy corporate life, heads somewhere decidedly quainter and more rural for the holidays.
Our heroine will then do one or all of the following: wear a plethora of colour-coordinated jumpers and coats, fall in love with someone very gorgeous and allegedly not her type, embrace the true spirit of Christmas (namely, not answering emails or running around in business suits all over the city), and, over the course of a few days, decide, “Yeah, this is a bit of alright, this. I think I’ll stay here forever.”
There are some exceptions to the rule, of course (see Netflix’s Jingle Jangle). Essentially, though, the Christmas messaging has switched from selfless to… well, to kind of selfish. But trust me when I say that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
After all, today’s world is very demanding of us all, especially women. We’re overstressed, overtired, and overworked. We’re constantly being convinced to give more of ourselves and our time, always. We’re the emotionally drained Isla Fishers of Disney’s Godmothered. We’re the frazzled Tia Mowrys of My Christmas Inn. And, without help from our fairy godmothers (and without our newly-inherited cosy Alaskan hotels), we’re trapped in these seemingly endless fatigue cycles, thoroughly convinced that we’re 100% deserving of our lot in life.
But, in our burnout-heavy world, sometimes the right thing to do is to be selfish. To focus on ourselves. To put our own needs, first for once. To reconsider whether or not the life we’re leading is truly making us happy. And, if not, to change that. Because we deserve to be happy, damn it.
So, while the messaging of It’s A Wonderful Life remains something of a gold standard, these newer films – essentially Christmas cards brought to life – definitely deserve a place in our hearts (and lives), too.
After all, there is a spectrum when it comes to selfishness. And, sometimes, we need a little reminding of that fact.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.