If you haven’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” – get on it now, it’s a precious, amazing film – you probably don’t get the reference. All through my childhood, before watching the movie in its entirety when I was in middle school, the phrase “Zuzu’s petals” was the only thing I thought of when I thought of this beloved James Stewart classic.
Maybe it was the way Stewart said “Zuzu’s petals,” in that iconic Stewart way, when he fished them out of his pocket near the end of the film (which was one of the few scenes I caught on TV as a kid). I didn’t understand why at the time, but I could sense that this was crucial to the plot and the theme of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Honestly, I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about the symbolism of Zuzu’s petals. I googled some articles and discovered that I’m not the only one who’s delved into what that detail means.
No, this post isn’t directly about marriage or body image, but it could be.
Okay, so to quickly recap before I get too far ahead of myself: through two-thirds of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we watch a man, George Bailey (Stewart) grow from a precocious child into an adult who has long suppressed his own dreams to leave his little hometown and do great things around the world, in order to help others. It all comes to a head when $8,000 goes missing from his business. After all the sacrificing George has done his entire life, he decides that it’s all for naught and plans to kill himself.
Before his attempt, George goes home to his family and checks on his sick daughter, Zuzu, who got a cold while carrying home a flower she won at school. A couple of the petals fall off, and Zuzu asks her father to “paste it.” Like any clever parent, George turns his back, stuffs the petals in his pocket, and turns back around, assuring his little girl that the flower is as good as new. He leaves the house shortly thereafter, and later drunkenly stumbles to a bridge to end his life.
That, of course, is when he meets his guardian angel, Clarence, who gives him the opportunity to see what the world would be like if George had never been born. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’re probably familiar with that part.
Here’s where Zuzu’s petals start to play a bigger role. When George begins to realize that things are screwy, he tries to prove that he’s still real and frantically searches his pockets for his driver’s license, insurance policy, and, lastly, Zuzu’s petals.
Clarence: They’re not there either.
Clarence: Zuzu’s petals. You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.
At the mention of Zuzu’s petals, George becomes increasingly agitated and sets off on his own to find validation from his friends and family that he exists, to no avail. His best friends, the people he helped and served, his mother, and even his own wife don’t know him. Desperate and alone, George returns to the bridge and prays to live again. You can watch what happens in the video below. *Spoilers ahead*
After finding Zuzu’s petals, George runs through town, filled with joy and hope, although he feels certain he’ll still go to prison for the missing cash.
If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending. But, like, go watch it now. Go. I’ll wait.
Anyway, Zuzu’s petals represent possibly the most significant message of this film: there’s always hope.
Hope may be small and may show itself to us in a seemingly insignificant moment, and we may squirrel it away and forget about it until we need it, but when we need it, it’s there. When George couldn’t find Zuzu’s petals, he realized there was no hope for him. Zuzu’s petals meant he had a wife and children who loved him, an entire life filled with accomplishments that bettered his community and his friends’ and neighbors’ lives. Zuzu’s petals were more than just wilted crusts.
And I think that’s the way hope is. It can be deceiving, because the people, places, or things we find hope in may not *look* like they provide hope, but when we notice them, we know everything is going to be okay.
At this time of year, as a Christian, I am reminded of another small thing that brought hope: a baby in a manger. Not a bejeweled king charging in on a white horse, wielding a sword and striking down anyone who had ever wronged God’s people. Not a suave politician, making everything perfect with a few documents and well-placed connections and donors. But I feel that baby in my heart, and even when things look hopeless, I remember that He was born to die for the whole world – even me – and that small reminder of hope has a huge impact.
And, like George, knowing I have a husband and family and friends who love me gives me hope. I’ve sloughed through some of my darkest days by clinging to the knowledge that someone cares about me and wants me to be okay.
I don’t know what you’re going through as you read this. Weight frustrations, marital problems, financial woes, physical ailments, relationship failures, work struggles, or just general Christmastime stress. Whatever it is, I urge you to find Zuzu’s petals. Dig down deep in your pocket. They’re there.
There’s always hope. There’s always Zuzu’s petals.