"The Greatest Gift" is a short story by the American writer Philip Van Doren Stern.
The idea for the story came to Stern in a dream in 1938. He worked on the story off and on for the next several years then, in 1943, finally showed it to his agent. The agent had difficulty selling the story to magazines, so Stern decided to self-publish it as a small pamphlet. He had 200 copies printed and sent them out as Christmas cards. A few months later, Stern received an offer through his agent for movie rights to the story. In 1945, Frank Capra purchased the rights from RKO Pictures and made the story into the film It's a Wonderful Life.
The story concerns a small-town bank clerk named George Bailey. On Christmas Eve, as George stands on a bridge contemplating suicide, a stranger begins to talk to him. George tells the man he wishes he had never been born. The stranger then tells George that his wish has been granted. After the man disappears, George walks back to town and discovers that things have changed.
Although set at Christmastime, Stern described "The Greatest Gift" as "a universal story for all people in all times."
It is Christmas Eve, but George Bailey is depressed. He leans over the railing of the bridge contemplating suicide. A stranger, an older nondescript little man, says "I wouldn't do that if I were you." George begins to deny he was thinking of jumping. The little man shakes his head and tells George to consider Mary and his mother. George is surprised the man knows his wife's name.
George tells the man that he is sick of being stuck in his dull life, never doing anything useful or interesting. He says he might as well be dead. He then goes on to wish he had never been born. The little man is delighted to hear George has come to a solution all on his own. He tells George that his wish has been granted — he has not been born, all his troubles are over, and he has no obligations. George begins to walk away, but the man stops him and hands him a salesman's satchel. The bag is full of brushes. The man instructs George to give away the brushes as free samples. George tries to give the bag back to the man, but when he looks up, he finds the man has disappeared.
It is now nearly dark. Lights have been turned on, and the small town looks cheerful. George begins to feel better. Walking by Hank Biddle's house, he sees the big old maple tree which his car scraped once. The incident had caused a bad quarrel between George and Hank. Suddenly feeling guilty about it, George goes up to examine the damage on the tree trunk. He finds no trace of the damage. George remembers what the little man said.
George walks on and comes to the bank where he works as a clerk. Although he had turned on the vault light earlier, the building is completely dark. A battered old sign on the door reads "FOR RENT OR SALE". George runs across the street and enters the realtor's office. Jim Silva the realtor looks up. He does not recognize George. George inquires about the bank and is informed that it went out of business during the Depression ten years ago. Jim says a man named Marty Jenkins stole fifty thousand dollars and disappeared, ruining everyone. George and Marty had both applied for the job at the bank, and George had gotten it. Without George, however, things happened differently. George asks Jim about Marty's brother Arthur. Jim says Arthur took to drink after his brother disappeared, which has been hard on his wife, Mary Thatcher. George and Art had both courted Mary. George runs out of the office.
George decides to go ask his parents about Mary. He walks up to their house and is greeted by the barking family dog, Brownie. He calls to the dog, but Brownie drives him back to the gate. George's father comes out to restrain the dog. He does not recognize George. George asks for "the lady of the house" and his father lets him go up to the house. George plays the part of the traveling salesman and presents his mother with a free brush. He is invited into the house. George sits down in the living room and begins to make conversation. He tells his parents that he used to know some people in town. He mentions Mary and Art in particular and learns they have two children. He then notices a framed portrait photograph which was taken on his younger brother Harry's sixteenth birthday. Instead of the two brothers, it shows only Harry. Inquiring about him, George discovers that Harry drowned and died on the day the photograph was taken. George then remembers that he and Harry went swimming after having their photograph taken. Harry suffered a cramp and George pulled him out of the water.
George has upset his parents with his questions. He leaves their house feeling miserable and walks to his own house. Mary opens the door and invites him inside. George sees the expensive blue sofa in the living room over which they often quarreled. He is amused to see that Mary apparently won the argument with Art as well. George opens his satchel and takes out a pretty blue-handled brush. Mary tries the brush on the sofa and thanks George for the gift. Two small children run in from the kitchen, a boy with a toy gun chasing his sobbing sister. The belligerent boy looks and acts just like Art Jenkins. Shortly, they are interrupted by the arrival of Art himself who is clearly drunk and in a bad temper. May apologizes to George and tells him he had better go. Art's son follows George to the door shooting at him with the toy pistol and saying "You're dead - dead - dead!" George wonders if he is really dead or if it is all a bad dream. He rushes to the bridge to look for the little man.
The little man is there on the bridge. George begs him to cancel the whole deal. He then tells the man that the town is a mess and he needs to get back for others' sake. He now realizes that they need him. The little man tells George that he had brought it on himself by denying the greatest gift; the gift of life and being part of this world. It being Christmas Eve, however, George is given another chance. The little man tells him to close his eyes and listen to the church bells. George does as he is told, and feels snow beginning to fall. By the time he opens his eyes, the snow is falling so heavily that George cannot see anything. He gropes for the railing and begins to walk toward the village.
George stops at the maple tree in front of Hank Biddle's house. He is overjoyed to see the scar on the tree trunk. He wonders if it had all been a dream. He then runs into Jim Silva the realtor. Jim greets George, surprised to see him out so late on Christmas Eve. George tells Jim that he needs to check the bank lights, then drags him along just to have a witness. Afterwards George rushes over to his parents' house.
He wrestles and plays happily with Brownie, startles his brother with his overly enthusiastic Christmas handshake, checks the photograph, kisses his mother, jokes with his father, then dashes out. He runs to his own house and loudly calls for his wife and children. He kisses Mary and drags her upstairs to wake up the sleeping children. Mary gets him back downstairs with difficulty then asks what the matter is. George pulls her down on the sofa and kisses her again. Then he freezes — his hand has found on the sofa the blue-handled brush.