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It’s A Wonderful Life

My Christmas Checklist: Why I’m Checking It Twice (Like Santa)

At the top of my Christmas checklist is watching It’s A Wonderful Life again. It should be on the top of yours, too.

No Christmas or holiday season is complete without going through a checklist.

We do that with the presents we buy and friends and family we communicate with or meet up with during the holidays. We do it with parties we attend.

But most of us have another checklist that we make sure is marked or the holidays don’t feel like the holidays.

Whether it’s listening to Christmas music or watching some of your favorite Christmas-themed television shows or movies that have been on your list for a long time, we have to do something that makes it feel more like a traditional Christmas.

For me and many Americans, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without watching the Frank Capra classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the cast of memorable characters will forever be engrained in American culture with its message of how special life is and how important we all are in affecting each other’s lives. It’s about those family and friends we share life with and make memories with that remain beyond our own lives.

I will never forget the first time I saw the movie one late Christmas Eve in 1976 when I was 14. It was by chance I came across it on WTTW Channel 11 Public Television in Chicago and immediately fell in love with it not only the movie but with Donna Reed. My buddies in college in the early 80s would later tease my about Donna Reed because they knew how much I loved her in the film.

The holidays were a tough time for me and my family. My oldest brother Ron died during the holiday season in 1973 when he was 20 and I was 10. There was a tint of sadness about that loss and that was especially true that night in 1976 when a few of Ron’s friends stopped by the house.

Little did I know that night, that a movie would make it easier to deal with loss.

When I saw it for the first time, I couldn’t believe I had never seen the movie before and how it was such a hidden gem. I later introduced the movie to one of my older brothers Craig who fell in love with it just like I did. He would ask me why I didn’t tell him about the movie sooner.

The movie hit its zenith in the 1980s when it seems like every local television station in the country started playing it because of copyright issues and ability to air it for free. That has since changed with NBC for years the only station with the rights to show the movie.

Throughout my life, I had made a point to see the movie every year. The one time I couldn’t early on was in December 1980 when I went to my sister’s wedding in College Station, TX. It wasn’t on TV there and that was before the era of everyone having a recorder to watch movies.

Little did I know at the time that I would share some history with Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey who wanted to travel the world and live a life of adventure but was thwarted by responsibilities after his dad died ten days before Christmas in 1981.

I received a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and had planned on a career as a foreign correspondent but that dream was cut short by the death of my dad and responsibility to care for my mom.

All of that would come to a head in 2004 when both my mom and brother Craig were dying at the same time. Mom suffered from brain cancer and Craig’s liver was failing because of AIDS.

I will never forget the last day I spent with them both together in Craig’s hospital room in Burbank, Calif., in Sept. 2004. We knew the end was near as family and friends gathered. Mom was in a daze because of what happening and the brain cancer eating away at her ability to function.

Playing in Craig’s room that day was an endless loop of It’s A Wonderful Life, and I will never forget him looking up at the screen and wondering what was going through his head. It was difficult to stop from choking up, but you had to be strong.

I have suffered through losses in life, but that had to be one of the toughest moments in my life seeing two family members together in one room, knowing the end was near for both.

Craig died the next morning and mom died six weeks later, and I couldn’t bear to watch the movie that Christmas season so I didn’t for years.

It wasn’t about to change until I went to the wedding of my friend Paul in August 2011. I filled in as the best man because his brother had died not long before.

After the wedding, Paul’s friends shouted “Hee Haw” to him and his bride Mona in a scene reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life when George and Mary got married.

That experience put me back on the couch again to watch, and I wouldn’t dream of missing out on it again for any reason.

When Craig died, I made sure I kept his framed poster of the movie that he hung in his room. I knew he would want me to have it and think about him and Ron and mom and dad whenever I watch It’s A Wonderful Life.

How could I not?

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