The Greatest Gift

by Dana Wineland O’Rouke, contributing writer

Bayberry candles, cut-out cookies, and Christmas cards have been a tradition in our home since we married forty-five years ago. While I addressed as many Christmas cards this year as last, our mailbox, and most others, welcomed fewer cards than ever.

Americans mailed approximately 1.1 billion Christmas cards in 2023. Twenty years ago, it was nearly 3 billion. Good or bad, snail mail greetings are being replaced by text messages, emails, and social media.

Some blame postage. Stamps went up 10 percent from last Christmas, making it a hefty 66 cents to mail a card. My 1978 newlywed batch cost only 15 cents each, but I had to lick them. In 1943 postage stamps were 3 cents, which brings me to my little story about a little story.

In 1900, Phillip Van Doren Stern was born in Pennsylvania. After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Stern decided to give the gift of his words to family and friends for the holidays. He printed 200 copies of the story and sent them out as Christmas cards in 1943.

As luck, or fate, would have it, the story found its way into the hands of David Hempstead who worked for RKO Pictures. They bought the motion picture rights to the story a few months later from Stern for $10,000.00. That’s about $175,000.00 in today’s market.

Various adaptations were written before the screenplay version of the story was sold to Frank Capra’s production company in 1945, again for $10,000.  Capra’s company adapted the story further and made it into It’s a Wonderful Life, which debuted on the big screen in 1946. The movie was far from a box office hit, but over the years became a sentimental holiday classic. It was forty years old when I saw it for the first time.

Late one December night, with Christmas shopping complete, and our sons asleep, my husband carried the presents hidden in the basement up the stairs to the living room where I waited with my arsenal of gift wrap supplies. Once his job was finished, he kissed me on my forehead and headed to bed, setting his alarm extra early to hide the stash before going to work in the morning. I was the master wrapper while everyone slept.

TV makes for good company, so I hit the button and saw a black-and-white movie starting. Too busy to channel surf, I let it play. A few minutes in, I was hooked.  The movie was It’s a Wonderful Life; the story that began as a Christmas card. The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who gave up his own dreams to help others. George experienced a mental breakdown after suppressing years of disappointment and heartache and falling victim to the villainous Mr. Potter.

George’s thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve brought about the intervention of his guardian angel.  When George expresses that he wishes he had never been born, the angel shows him all the lives he touched and what the world would be like if he had never existed.

When the credits rolled, I wiped a happy tear from my eye, then realized I had gotten caught up in the story and needed to get busy wrapping. I was just finishing up when I heard my husband come down the stairs.

“Why are you still up?” he asked.

I told him about the film while the two of us shuttled the gifts back to their basement hiding place. We made plans to watch it together when it aired again that week and I officially declared it my favorite holiday movie after that second viewing.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life. Watching it is like visiting a dear old friend. I practically know the movie by heart but caught something recently that touched my soul.

In one scene, George stops briefly at a framed photo of his beloved father that has a motto beneath it. “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

It is a partial quote from Saint Francis of Assisi. “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received – only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.”

George Bailey had those qualities in abundance, as did his loving wife Mary. It is something we should all aspire to embrace.

Thankfully the movie has a happy ending. I’ve always wished there was a sequel where we get to see George fulfill his dream of travel and Mr. Potter gets what he deserves, but that movie only exists in my imagination.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I urge you to grab some popcorn, and a tissue, and watch it any time of the year. If you’re already a fan, consider yourself lucky the people of Bedford Falls dwell in a piece of you.

The movie’s uplifting message is that we all touch each other’s lives, often in deep and meaningful ways. It’s good to be reminded of that.

Life is beautiful, complicated, and indeed, the greatest gift. Be sure to see the value in yours, and never let anyone or anything break your spirit.  


About the author: Freelance writer Dana Wineland O’Rourke retired after wearing the many hats required for her position as a school secretary for 30 years. A lifelong resident of Monongahela, Dana has been married to Tim for 45 years. Their two sons and daughters-in-law made the family an even dozen with six grandchildren. She enjoys spending time with family, traveling, gab & grubs with friends, biking, and fitness classes at the YMCA.