The Greatest Gift

By Judy Berman

It was nearly Christmas. For the second year in a row, I searched for the one gift I knew our two daughters would love. But it eluded me.

Finally, I found them in a flea market. The price! It was a black market price – way beyond what the Cabbage Patch dolls sold for when they were available in the stores. Despite that, I bought two. I couldn’t wait to see our daughters’ faces when they opened their presents. It would be the best Christmas ever.

There were a few other times when there was too much month at the end of the money. When I couldn’t afford new shoes for my youngest to wear when she was in a school play. When we had a turkey one year only because it was a gift from my employer. Our girls never complained, but I felt like a failure.

Not on the scale of a George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra movie, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, was released Christmas 1946.

Based on the short story, “The Greatest Gift,” by Philip Van Doren Stern, it begins with George “leaning over the railing of the iron bridge, staring down moodily at the black water.”

He is having very dark thoughts indeed.

In the movie, there’s an angel’s voice saying it’s a crucial night for George Bailey.

“He’ll be thinking of throwing away God’s greatest gift. Joseph, send for Clarence.”

Clarence’s mission is to convince George that his life is worth living. If Clarence succeeds, he may earn his angel wings. It’s a hard sell. George feels trapped in his job, unable to pay the bills, and that he’s missing out on adventures that others have enjoyed. He’s desperate.

He tells the stranger, “I wish I’d never been born.” That strikes Clarence as an excellent idea, and he grants George’s wish.

“You’ve been given a great gift, George! A chance to see what the world would be like without you,” Clarence said.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around it leaves an awful hole, doesn’t it. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”

It doesn’t take George long to realize he wants to live. In flashbacks, we see that George’s life fits the definition of success: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived … “  George begs for Clarence to help him. Despite the bumps and bruises he’s experienced, he wants to be back with his family.

Screenshot of "It's a Wonderful Life" with Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Karolyn Grimes (as Zuzu).
Screenshot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Karolyn Grimes (as Zuzu).

This movie, that is now a holiday classic, actually lost money at the box office that year. The critics thought it was too sentimental. Its staying power, however, can be attributed to the movie’s optimism.

I smile when I think of that Christmas long ago. My girls were delighted with their dolls. But those presents were overshadowed by a greater gift that we’ve all been given: life.

We touch the lives of so many people. Sometimes, in ways we’re not fully aware of.

Movie Trailer: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) 

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photo: Screenshot of It’s a Wonderful Life with Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Karolyn Grimes (as Zuzu).

Quote on “Success”  – “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – this is to have succeeded.” This quote, often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, actually was written by Bessie Anderson Stanley.

  1. You are definitely not a failure as a mom as far as I’m concerned. You took great care of us and still do. Just think… I wouldn’t be here without you – literally. ,;-)

  2. I agree with Danielle Mom. You always made sure we had what we needed and I don’t remember not having things. You have never failed us and we are better for all that you have done.

  3. I don’t think people who are truly failures as parents even entertain the thought, so just the fact that you’ve verbalized the fear shows your sensitivity and self-awareness — both elements of any good relationship. I enjoyed this post, Judy, more than I’ve ever been able to enjoy that movie. Should I give it another try?

    1. Thank you for the vote of confidence, Charles. There are times I think – as we reflect on life – on what we could have done better. I think we’ve all wished for a do-over at one time or another. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. This movie is one of my favorites, and I do think you should give it another try.

  4. Judy first of all does not matter how much you try, none of us who knows you in either this virtual world or in real world is going to agree with you, when you say you are a failure.
    Somehow being part of a big family, where my parents have so much burdens to carry of so many family members, my childhood was not a smooth journey. And now as things have changes a lot, me and my mother occasionally chat about those old days. And every time we talk about those days, I could feel there is some kind of regret which lies in mother’s heart which occasionally comes out. And I end up telling my mom, “Mom, I hope you realize that, you are mother of three good people and you are the one and only reason behind everything good in us”. And I have no doubt that, your both daughter thinks the same about you.
    Your this post, made me little bit emotional. But it was a great post, Judy.

    1. As Frank Sinatra once sang, “Regrets, I’ve Had a Few …” But the positives in my life have outweighed the negatives. 🙂
      Thank you, Arindam, for your vote of confidence in me. I know that I have two wonderful daughters, I (and my husband) must have done something right. Success.
      I’m glad you liked the post. I can identify with the story to the extent that I am optimistic about what life has to offer. Even, in some of the negatives of life, good has emerged.

    1. It was underappreciated in the beginning, but it really had a beautiful message. I lived near a community – Seneca Falls, NY – that believes it is the inspiration for Bedford Falls. They really celebrate this movie.

      1. It’s a classic. Did you read the recent piece on my blog about George Bailey running for President? I think you’d like it…

        comment from earthrider to moviewriternyu:
        OK, I just checked out your post on George Bailey. Yes, of course, I’d vote for him for president. He has heart, decency and cares about the average hard-working folks. He has had political experience – in a 6 degrees of separation way – as the character Jimmy Stewart played in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” 😆

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