Yesterday on Christmas Eve eve I had the opportunity to experience two views of Christmas. In the afternoon, I went to the National Theater in London to see Alan Ayckbourn's dark comedy "Seasons Greetings." After some holiday shopping on the Southbank and dinner we went to the British Film Institute to see "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen.
You can't get more opposing views on Christmas than Ayckbourn and Frank Capra the director of "It's a Wonderful Life." The British playwright writes about situations that releases the jerk in all of us. He maintains that personality flaws always appear in a social situation filled with pressure. For example, consider a family spending three days together celebrating a Christmas. It's a holiday fraught with forced friendships that is ripe for comedy. The humor is delightful but the pain of spoiled expectations is also present. You laugh a lot at the characters and situations, but you feel bad knowing it will be much the same next year.
Seeing a British comedy with a British audience was not as revealing as I hoped. Perhaps it's because Ayckbourn is so frequently produced locally, but rather I think it is because his characters are so recognizable and the pressure of Christmas is universal. In other words good theater is good theater wherever you see it.
On the other hand, Capra is a director with an optimistic view of life. He believes that lightness is more powerful than darkness and a good life is rewarded. If he weren't so brilliant he could be viewed as a simple sentimentalist.
Therefore, I was not prepared for my response to "It's a Wonderful Life." It's not my favorite film, but seeing it on a big screen gave me new respect for the filmmaking skill of Capra. I saw details the small box doesn't permit and the expressions of love, sadness and joy emanating from giant faces is compelling.
I learned that unlike the US the film is not very well known in the UK. So seeing it with about a 1,000 people, probably half of whom were experiencing it for the first time, was quite a sensation. The laughter and tears were fresh and genuine and I have to admit affecting. I have a new respect for the film.
On an intellectual level the two experiences further demonstrated the complexity of Christmas and the effect it has on cultures. If there is one common link between the two views of the holiday it has to do with expectations. Ayckbourn's family falls apart when the holiday fails to live up to their expectations. George Bailey realizes he lives a wonderful life when he accepts his life for what it is and gives up his definition of a perfect life.
Put together the message is - enjoy the day for what it is and appreciate yourself for who you are. One of the values of Christmas is it encourages such reflection. Just remember there are 364 other days in the year. It doesn't have to be perfect on Dec. 25.