For many Americans at or near the mid-century mark of their lives, Frank Capra has shaped their understanding of the meaning of Christmas in a way that only Charles Dickens could possibly rival.  Of all of his films, It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s personal favorite, but even though it was nominated for Best Picture in 1947 (as well as four other Academy Awards), it owes its influence on my generation to a clerical error that let the copyright on the film lapse in 1974.  For almost 20 years, until Republic Pictures figured out a way to assert copyright once more, It’s a Wonderful Life was shown as frequently from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day as A Christmas Story is today.

It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol share roughly the same premise: Through supernatural intervention, a man’s heart is changed on Christmas Eve.  Yet there are significant differences.  George Bailey is seeking death, while Ebenezer Scrooge is deathly afraid of dying.  George has made the lives of those around him better, while Scrooge’s influence on others has been minimal at best, and more often negative.  And the endings of the two tales reflect these differences: George changes his mind and embraces the life he has been living because, well, it’s wonderful, while Scrooge discovers that the only way to cheat death is to begin to live life.

Before their respective Christmas Eve encounters, Scrooge and George could hardly have been more different.  Scrooge is the living paragon of Manchester School get-what-you-can-while-forsaking-all-others liberalism, while George Bailey repeatedly denies his own desires and wishes for the good of his community.  Small wonder that, every year, libertarians proffer tiresome essays on why pre-visitation Scrooge is the true hero of A Christmas Carol, while Mr. Potter is the only man in Bedford Falls worthy of emulation.

Yet how did Scrooge and Potter become the men they are, and why are they so different from George?  Most would probably answer “greed,” and both Dickens and Capra would likely agree with that assessment.  But there’s more here than meets the eye, as both tales transcend their Christmas settings and become broader lessons in the realities of human life.  Because modern man—no matter what his economic state—has shaped his life more in the mold of Scrooge and Potter than in that of George Bailey.

Bailey has spent his life living up to obligations—to his brother, his father, his uncle, his employer, his town, his friends, his wife, his family.  Scrooge and Potter have relentlessly shed those same obligations.  They have employees, but they have reduced their connection to them to the purely transactional.  This isn’t simply a function of greed; it’s possible to be greedy and yet still surround oneself with friends and family and treat employees with the respect they deserve.

What Scrooge and Potter have done is to retreat into themselves, to become individuals rather than full-fledged persons.  George Bailey is, in many ways, no less self-centered than they are; he has plans, big plans, that don’t involve Bedford Falls or anyone, with the eventual (and even then, somewhat reluctant) exception of Mary.  His despair on Christmas Eve has less to do with fear that he has let his family and community down than with his sudden realization that his impending arrest means he’s never going to leave his obligations behind and travel the world.  While Potter puts the thought of suicide in George’s mind by telling him he’s worth more dead than alive, George entertains the thought as a means of escaping his responsibilities rather than living up to them.

But George would have lived up to them, and if we pay close attention we know that, even before Clarence shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if George hadn’t been born.  When Clarence jumps off the bridge, George shows his true character and dives in to save Clarence’s life.  No one would believe that Potter or Scrooge, sans-apparitions, would do likewise.  It’s far from clear that Scrooge would have done so even on Christmas Day, because, while the last two paragraphs of A Christmas Carol present a future Scrooge who has become much more like George Bailey, on Christmas Day itself the change is only beginning, and Scrooge’s initial attempts at turning his life around amount to throwing money at the problem.

What Clarence’s intervention shows George is not just that the people of Bedford Falls would be worse off for the lack of George, but that he would be worse off for the lack of each one of them.  George on the bridge is Scrooge in his bed and Potter in his wheelchair.  He’s modern man, seeking freedom from obligation, not realizing that true freedom comes from living up to our obligations—to spouses and to children, to family and to friends, to our communities and, ultimately, to our God.  Yet George comes through in the moment when he is most needed, because his character—unlike Scrooge’s, unlike Potter’s—has been formed by his embrace, however reluctant, of the people around him.

For George Bailey, it truly is a wonderful life, not because living up to his obligations has kept him from becoming the man that he wanted to be, but because doing so has made him the man that he is.