When Philip Van Doren Stern’s 4,000-word short story “The Greatest Gift” failed to impress a prospective publisher, the writer and Civil War historian decided to print it himself. He sent it out as his Christmas card to family and friends in December 1943. The story had to do with a despondent man contemplating suicide who is given the opportunity to see what the world would have been like had he never been born.
One of those who happened upon this unique Christmas greeting was Hollywood director Frank Capra, who bought the movie rights to the story for $10,000. Capra adapted “The Greatest Gift” into a screenplay and gave Stern’s story a new title. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released as a motion picture in December 1946.
What originated as a Christmas card became a movie released at Christmastime. And each Christmastime, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is shown multiple times. If it wasn’t for Christmas, we would never know the story of George Bailey. But more significantly, without Christmas, our world would be drastically different.
British writer C. S. Lewis imagined such a dark, Christ-less planet in his brilliant children’s story “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The world he conceived he called Narnia. Paralyzed under the frozen spell of the White Witch, it is a world in which it is “always winter but never Christmas.”
A world in which it is always winter but never Christmas would be a world in which the mail carrier stuffs your box with bills, bank statements, and third-class junk. No Christmas would mean no Christmas cards or caroling or gift giving. The world would be devoid of twinkling lights and festive decorations. By definition, a world without Christmas would be a world without Jesus.
The shock George Bailey felt as he wandered into the dark and depraved city limits of Pottersville is nothing when compared with what we would feel if our sin-infested planet had been denied the “Light of the World.”
What worked as a brilliant literary motif in Stern’s story works as a startling exercise for those tempted to approach their faith casually. We would do well to ponder what our world would be like had Jesus Christ never been born.
If Jesus had never been born, not only would there be no Christmas, there would be no Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. Each one of those popular American holidays is based on (or somehow tied to) Christianity. But a world without Jesus would have even greater implications.
Can you imagine a world without the artistic masterpieces of the Renaissance largely influenced by the Christian message? Can you imagine a world without a boat named the Mayflower transporting victims of religious persecution to the New World determined to populate a land where faith could be freely practiced? Can you imagine a world without William Wilberforce and his Christian witness against slavery in Britain’s Parliament?
Can you imagine a world without George Frederic Handel’s immortal oratorio Messiah? Can you imagine science textbooks that do not include the findings of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, and Mendel, all of whom embraced the Christ of history and were shaped by his teachings?
Can you imagine a world without universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and many others that were founded by Christians to train Christians? Can you imagine a world without Clara Barton and the lifesaving efforts that came from her Red Cross?
Can you imagine a world without General William Booth and his army of soldiers fighting on the frontlines of homelessness, hunger, and poverty? Can you imagine a world without Bill Wilson’s Twelve Steps or his Big Blue Book or the countless lives who have regained sobriety through the organization called Alcoholics Anonymous?
And furthermore, if Jesus had never been born, we would not have the assurance of forgiveness and confidence of the Creator’s acceptance and the wonderful life we were created to experience.
Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.