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Here’s a puzzle for you. What two things do the following movies all have in common?:

  • Citizen Kane
  • Trading Places
  • Die Hard
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary
  • The Long Kiss Goodnight
  • Catch Me If You Can
  • About a Boy
  • The Family Man

Got the answer yet? What if I throw in another one: It’s a Wonderful Life? Or how about: A Christmas Carol? At this point you must have figured out at least one of the commonalities: Christmas somehow plays a key role in each of these movies. So why aren’t Home Alone and Miracle on 42nd Street also on the list? Kudos to you if you sussed out the second shared thread: each of the films also features some kind of career identity crisis.

Why is it that we tie Christmas so often to stories of people wrestling with career issues? Of course Ebenezer Scrooge and ol’ George Bailey are the explicit antithetical archetypes of the lot — the former choosing the wrong path in life and needing to be shown the need to turn from it, the latter choosing the right path, but questioning whether that is true, and each coming to realize the truth not just on, but in some sense because of, Christmas. (Nicolas Cage’s character in The Family Man, Jack Campbell, is a weird amalgam of the two who manages to take both paths, but, again, finds resolution on Christmas.) But even when Christmas is not central to the plot of the movie, there is something about the career identity crisis trope that compels Hollywood to work Christmas in somehow.

TLKGWill Freeman, the shallow aimless layabout in About a Boy, doesn’t work — doesn’t have to work — because of the royalties he receives from an endlessly popular Christmas song his father wrote. Frank Abagnale, Jr., the serial imposter in Catch Me If You Can, calls his FBI pursuer Carl on several Christmases, realizing that Carl is the only person he really has any kind of long-term relationship with. Amnesiac suburban housewife Samantha Caine realizes she’s really deadly CIA assassin Charly Baltimore just in time for the holidays in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Bridget Jones — well, she’s trying to figure out a whole bunch of things, but one of them is pointedly her career, and several key scenes (including one in which her love interest also makes a career-altering decision) take place at Christmas.

dan_aykroyd_trading_places_editedIn Die Hard, Holly Gennaro McClane’s career identity crisis — is she Holly Gennaro or Holly McClane? — plays out against the backdrop of her company’s Christmas party. Snooty investor Louis Winthorpe III and street hustler Billy Ray Valentine have their reciprocal career identity crises thrust upon them (hence the title Trading Places), but manage to figure out the manipulation and start plotting their revenge on Christmas Day. And in the end, the audience discovers that, despite his wealth, success, and astounding career, citizen Charles Foster Kane’s dying thought is of a childhood Christmas present.

What is the connection? I think it comes down to this: What we do is who we are. And who we are — who we feel we are, who we are seen to be — becomes a lot more momentous to many people at Christmas time. The values of love, peace, and generosity stand out more sharply, reminding us to consider whether we truly have incorporated these values into who we are . . . which means, into what we do. Are the things we do productive and meaningful? Do we provide help, relief, joy, enlightenment, or comfort to others? In our society, we are not always taught or allowed to contemplate these factors — we’re convinced to think about the bottom line, to look out for number one. But Christmas provides a context in which everyone can agree we are allowed to consider something that, really, should always be part of our everyday career planning: Am I doing good?

What you do is who you are.

So now it is Christmas, and you have room to think about this, too, along with all the other more selfish factors (like your own aptitudes, inclinations, lifestyle, and economics) that you should take into consideration. Just as in the movies, Christmas can give us all the opportunity to remember and bear in mind what Jacob Marley said, after Scrooge told him that “you were always a good man of business”: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business.”