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Commentary: Christmas magic: It's a wonderful vice

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 24, 2008 - It's Christmas once again. Proponents of the holiday will tell you that it's a magical time of the year. Indeed, it is. Yuletide enthusiasts rarely mention, however, that all magic involves deception or that psychiatrists consider magical thinking to be a mild form of psychosis.

We teach our children that a miraculous elf traverses the globe every Christmas Eve in a flying sled powered by airborne reindeer. He descends their chimneys to deliver brightly wrapped treasures to deserving boys and girls. Later, if the kid grows up to abuse drugs or alcohol, we complain that he or she can't cope with reality. I wonder why ...

Our benign burglar is something of an omnipotent moralist: "He knows if you've been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake ..." By linking material reward to moral worth, the myth of Santa encourages the impetuous little imps to behave themselves occasionally while perpetuating the uniquely American tendency for the poor to feel vaguely guilty about their plight.

The house I grew up in didn't have a fireplace, which made entry problematical for the merry old elf. I once asked my aunt about this difficulty. She pointed out that our home had a chimney on its roof to vent the furnace. I countered that if Santa went down that chimney, he'd burn up. After extended debate over the mechanics of indoor heating, she ultimately dismissed my concerns by explaining, "He's magic, for god's sake ..." (Yes, I was an annoying child.)

The trouble with magical explanations is that they lead one to look for magical solutions for problems that were usually caused by our reliance on magic in the first place. Nowhere is this tendency better illustrated than in the Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life.

By now, I'm sure everybody's familiar with Frank Capra's venerable film about George Bailey, a small town savings & loan director with a soft heart and a head to match. Jimmy Stewart plays the lead, while Lionel Barrymore portrays his adversary, the sinisterly pragmatic Mr. Potter --a role that may have been the inspiration for Dick Cheney's later rendition of a vice president. Bailey's wife, Mary, is Donna Reed who, by any reasonable reckoning, was a total babe in her day.

The story revolves around George's effort to keep the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan Association afloat as the last, best hope for home ownership for the working folk of the fictional community of Bedford Falls. His task is made no easier by the dark intrigues of the slumlord/financier, Potter, who profits by keeping the down-trodden renting from him.

At one point, trying to quell a run on the bank, George explains to a worried investor that his money isn't kept in a safe at the savings & loan: "Your money's in Joe's house and Joe's money is in the Kennedy house..."

At another, he entrusts a vital bank deposit to his assistant, the absent-minded Uncle Billy, an eccentric relation who demonstrates the pitfalls of good-natured nepotism by losing the critical $8,000.

Faced with ruination and imprisonment on Christmas Eve, George gets drunk and decides to end it all by jumping off a bridge. It is at this existential juncture that he meets his guardian angel, the well-intentioned but bumbling Clarence who's well into the second century of his campaign to earn his wings.

Clarence jumps into the river and feigns drowning, prompting our suicidal do-gooder to dive in and save him. When George later wishes that he'd never been born, Clarence has a rare moment of inspiration and grants his wish.

We thus embark on a phantasmagoric voyage through a Bedford Falls without George Bailey. The town -- now called Potterville -- is a bleak den of vice and inequity populated by mean-spirited denizens haunted by broken dreams. Among the things we learn along the way is that Uncle Billy would be in an insane asylum were it not for his beneficent nephew.

Ultimately, George realizes he's had a wonderful life and returns home an inspired man to face arrest. There, he's met by a delegation of his investors. Instead of lynching him for losing their life savings, they present him with the proceeds of a collection they've taken up on his behalf.

Events really turn for the better when Mary's rich ex-boyfriend, whom she dumped to marry George, wires his former romantic rival an open line of credit to see him through. A bell rings to signify that Clarence got his wings and the crowd sings Auld Lang Syne as the film ends.

The shortcomings of magical thought are everywhere apparent here. If George was able to dive from the bridge and save a drowning man without sustaining injury, how did he plan to kill himself by jumping off it? Was it really a good idea to give the vital bank deposit to a guy who belongs in the Crayola factory?

And as the subprime collapse has demonstrated, the "your money's in Joe's house" school of finance only works when Joe pays the mortgage. Whatever his human failings, Potter was well capitalized and his investors were subsequently secure.

There's more to be said about the dangers of Christmas magic, but I have to get home to let Santa out of the furnace. Merry Christmas.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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M.W. Guzy