Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Traditions, on Screen: What makes a holiday film a beloved classic?

We all know the story.

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a man who has sacrificed his life to help others, wonders what would have happened if he had never been born—and an angel shows him just that. It is a heartwarming holiday story pinpointing the effect that one can have on the people around them.

Watching this film is a yearly tradition in this reviewer’s household, and there are many great memories attached to it. But what makes this film great beyond the fact that it’s a classic? And what made it a classic in the first place?

We see the common tropes—the film roots for the underdog, a beloved theme throughout film history, and portrays the victory of a good man over a greedy one, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Its host of strong, vibrant characters (let’s all take a moment to recognize Donna Reed for her enigmatic role as Mary Bailey and Henry Travers as the lovable Clarence Odbody) certainly serves as a clincher in defining this film as a classic.

Taking the conversation one step further: What makes “It’s a Wonderful Life” (and other films) a holiday film? Part of it is certainly that it takes place around the holidays, and the supernatural element (God sending an angel to guide George through his crisis) serves its purpose in classifying the genre. But there’s more to it than just the setting and magical premise.

The underlying theme that we have seen time and time again in holiday films is the coming together of families and a reflection of community at its finest—something that “It’s a Wonderful Life” takes great strides in portraying. If you extract the supernatural context of the story, what remains is a community coming to the aid of a decent man in a time of need, and that man rejoicing in his family and loved ones. That alone allows the film to fulfill its holiday duties quite well.

As we gear up for the holiday season, may we remember to gather with our communities to watch films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and embrace that holiday spirit.


National Theatre Live
Monday, Dec. 4, 7 p.m.

Holiday Films
“It’s a Wonderful Life”
Wednesday, Dec. 20, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 24, 7:30 p.m.

“White Christmas”
Saturday, Dec. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Monday, Dec. 25, 7:30 p.m.

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