The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that “except in the case of the indifferent coin of Christian charity left in the palm of the poor, every true gift is reciprocal. He that gives is not deprived of that which is given. To give and to receive are the same.”  

Beyond Borges’ critique of casual donations, he reminds us with beautiful simplicity that meaningful gifts offer just as much to the giver as they do to the recipient. To give is to receive; to receive is to give.

This idea is demonstrated beautifully each year during the Christmas season as many of us watch Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life.” From his youth, the protagonist, George Bailey, lives an exceptional life of giving, only to receive an equal portion of what he gives, and more. 

You may recall, for example, how at the film’s opening, George saves his little brother, Harry, from drowning in an icy pond. Harry later grows up to be a war hero and consequently saves countless lives in battle. Harry’s heroism brings honor to the Bailey name, and eventually to George in particular when Harry closes the film by crowning George “the richest man in town.” 

At the heart of the film, George gives up both his ambition to explore the world and his formal education in order to help maintain his late father’s small-town bank. The small bank stands in competition with the avaricious and miserly Mr. Potter, who owns the biggest bank in town, and desires nothing but to dissolve the Bailey family business. But because of George’s sacrifice in staying home — because he gives of himself — he maintains the business and gives many of the lower-class citizens access to affordable and dignified housing outside of Potter’s slums. 

As George gives his life to Bedford Falls, he gains the lovely Mary for his wife. Mary, one of the most (if not the most) beautiful portrayals of womanhood in American cinema, is a woman who loves George and will love him ’til the day she dies (she says so as a little girl). What more could anyone ever ask for? And that love saves him, twice. 

She first saves him as newlyweds. While they ride off together for their honeymoon, with $2,000 in hand (the modern equivalent of $36,000), George sees many of his customers running for his bank to withdraw their deposits; it was the beginning of the Great Depression. George leaves the taxi and attempts to solve the problem on his own before they leave. 

While George stands in his office, contemplating what can be done, he reads a quote below his father’s portrait, mirroring Borges’ teaching: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” The quote becomes all the more meaningful when George doesn’t have enough money to hold over his clients, but hears the clarion call of relief from his wife: “How about $2,000 dollars?” It was exactly enough money to hold off bankruptcy. 

Mary’s love for her husband doesn’t stop there. At the end of the film, on Christmas Eve, George is now a middle-aged father and becomes desperately depressed after losing an $8,000 deposit. The consequence is a prison sentence, causing him to contemplate suicide. Thankfully, heaven intervenes (due to the prayers of those to whom George had given so much). In Dickensian fashion, George is given a vision of what Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born to give so much of himself. 

In the nightmare, George sees the city as a wasteland governed by the greed and selfishness of Mr. Potter — the city never becomes anything because no one ever gave anything to it but greed.

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As George returns to the real world, he shouts for joy in pure rapture. He even greets the police awaiting his arrest: “I’m going to jail, isn’t it wonderful!” But he can’t find Mary. While George was receiving his angelic training, Mary was going through town collecting donations to help George, and she manages to round up enough money and more to save her husband. In the end, Mary stands with eyes beaming with light and tears: a queen that makes a king of George in meek, silent beauty. 

The apostle Paul wrote, “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” In the context of George’s vision, and the teachings of Borges, this is literally true. If you never give of yourself, you’ll never have anything of a self to give.

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This truth likewise is the fundamental beauty of Christmas, which, at its core, has little to do with money and everything to do with how much of ourselves we choose to give to those around us.

Though “It’s a Wonderful Life” takes place on Christmas Eve, it’s not the date that makes it a Christmas movie, but the giving and the receiving. While the movie ends with a large pile of money, that’s not what makes George contented and rich. That comes from his family and the love of the townspeople; gifts returned to him because of what he gave away. The money is there for the audience to visualize his rich and wonderful life, but George’s wealth is not monetary. 

Instead of rushing around this weekend looking for last-minute, store-bought presents, we should contemplate the gifts that only we can give: our attention, our time, our presence. When we start to give these true gifts, we’ll begin to understand the reality of what Borges taught long ago: “to give and to receive are the same.” 

Scott Raines is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas. 

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