It’s a wonderful family time | Guest column

One of the most wonderful parts of the Christmas season is getting together with family. One of the hardest parts of the Christmas season is getting together with family.

If you have a great relationship with your clan, Christmas provides an opportunity to maximize your joy. But if your family is divided or dysfunctional, the obligatory gathering can often impersonate the Grinch and steal your Christmas peace.

As a chaplain at a retirement community, I have observed how time and distance can redefine a family’s identity. The death of a spouse, a sibling or a child can rob you of branches that used to characterize your family tree. And when miles separate you from those with whom you regularly used to share special times, traditions change.

So, what do you do when you don’t have any family (or don’t want to be around members of your family) at Christmas? The simple answer is this: Family can be more than just those individuals with whom you share your DNA.

I’ve seen that in a rather winsome way the past several Christmases. Each December since 2015, I’ve participated in the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival in Seneca Falls, New York. Every year I look forward to renewing my friendship with the surviving cast members from the 1946 movie who regularly attend the festival. Carol Coombs Mueller, Karolyn Grimes and Jimmy Hawkins (together with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed) comprised the George Bailey family Frank Capra created when he directed the classic film seventy-five years ago. And they remain a family. But it wasn’t always that way.

After a couple of weeks of filming, those three child actors went their separate ways. The challenges of marriage, divorce, children and death visited them. They didn’t see each other for almost fifty years. And then in 1993, the Target Corporation decided to feature “It’s a Wonderful Life” memorabilia in their stores for Christmas. As part of their IAWL focus, the executives of Target decided to reunite the Bailey kids and send them around the country on a promotional tour. That goodwill tour resulted in a reunion and began a connection that continues to this day.

As the actors began to spend time with each other, they shared memories of their time on the set of a timeless movie that they hadn’t actually seen themselves until they’d grown up. The memories they’d made during the summer of 1946 (and the memories they’ve made since) have bonded them in a rather remarkable way.

Today when I see the three together, I see a family. The Bailey kids, now in their eighties, are a “family of friends” whose bonds are stronger than many biological families. They love each other and they love being with each other. As then, still now. It’s a wonderful family! And they aren’t even related.

There is a passage in the Gospels that troubles some people. It’s that scene when Jesus’ disciples interrupt his teaching with news that his mother and siblings are waiting for him. To the surprise of the disciples and those listening to him, Jesus asks “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He then goes on to answer the question he’s posed. “Whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my family.”

While Jesus is making a case for the fact that those who heed his teaching comprise his true family, he is also implying is that family units can be defined by more than asking “Who’s your mother?”

So, as we prepare to celebrate his birth, it seems quite possible that the Savior would give us permission to redefine family as we contemplate with whom we’d like to gather to party.

This month as I return to upstate New York to sign copies of my book “Finding God in It’s a Wonderful Life,” I look forward to seeing Carol, Karolyn and Jimmy. Together we will celebrate the message of Christmas as well as the movie that brought us together in the first place. I can honestly say they have become like family to me. And I can pretty much guarantee it will be a wonderful time!

Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.

Courtesy photo
Greg Asimakoupoulos with Karolyn Grimes, the child actor who played Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Courtesy photo Greg Asimakoupoulos with Karolyn Grimes, the child actor who played Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”