Reviving the endangered Christmas spirit
In 1947, George Seaton and Valentine Davies wrote one of the most popular Christmas films, Miracle on 34th Street. The film presents the funny idea of criticizing commerce by having respectable people bring Santa Claus to justice under threat of an obligation to an insane asylum. Big business, politics and law as well as medicine and psychiatry are involved in this story: as obstacles for a girl who fulfills her Christmas wish, a family.
This film won three Academy Awards out of four nominations, two for writers and a third for Edmund Gwenn, Best Supporting Actor who featured the best picture of Santa Claus in Hollywood history. Perhaps its popularity has to do with its resemblance to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the most successful modern Christmas story. Both are stories of charity that convince the spirit of commerce – the struggle in our souls between selfishness and belief.
The spirit of the trade
The story begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which begins the Christmas season and of course the shopping season. Kris Kringle seems to be leading the parade as a precaution. With some indignation he notices that the actor who plays Santa Claus in the parade is drunk; Far from spreading the spirit of Christmas, the deceiver has lost it himself. That first vice we see in the film is low class behavior that no serious American, at least at the time of the film’s release, would sanction.
A notable woman, Doris (played by the beautiful Maureen O’Hara), hires Kris to play Santa Claus, first for the parade and then for Macy’s. She is something of an advanced prototype, not only very successful in business, but modern through and through – a divorced single mother and rationalist educator to her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood), whose imagination she withered on the grounds that it was devoid of fantastic hope something cannot give disappointment. Don’t ask how she feels about God.
Doris’ mental weakness then leads Kris to the insane asylum and the New York Supreme Court. She listens to an obviously bad man because he claims scientific authority – a psychiatrist – and because she can’t bring herself to believe in miracles. The spirit of the bargain has made her cowardly – she fears that if Kris turns out to be insane, her employer will be held liable and that she will be held liable again. She doesn’t even want to be personally responsible for trusting him, so she leaves him to his fate.
So the spirit of commerce and the spirit of Christmas come into conflict. With that setup, you’d expect the movie to suggest greed as the vice that condemns respectable people, but it’s cowardice instead. In a way, it can’t be greed because it takes work, wealth, and trade to make gifts, and how could you have Christmas without gifts? Poverty does not create generosity. But it has to be cowardice, because poverty is associated with suffering and we need wealthy people who are brave if they want to help the worse people – as there is always the temptation to hide behind money and just leave society.
Of course, Miracle On 34th Street is a fairy tale – it identifies the beautiful and the good. The Christmas spirit still lives in the hearts of American children and overwhelms the court, first as a comical testimony from the prosecutor’s son who believes in Santa Claus because his father told him to, and then as an absurd parade of postmen carrying 21 sacks full of children’s letters forcing the judge to dismiss the case against Kringle. Who would dare to break their little hearts?
Self-interest rightly understood
We should think deeper about the logic of the film: Miracles’ version of the American compromise initially seems to reconcile the two spirits. Children ask Kris for gifts, and when Macy’s doesn’t have what they want, he sends their infatuated parents elsewhere. Employees and customers alike are shocked, but Mr. Macy sees the point of this goodwill policy. Nobody expects the capitalists to be decent, so this is a welcome change from cynicism. Earning gratitude can be surprisingly easy, and so this Santa Claus is a huge hit in commercial America.
The capitalists would have done well enough without the scientists who instill fear into the matter. Kris doesn’t act to make money – he really believes he’s Santa and that’s going too far. It seems that Kris just has no self-interest, and what kind of man does not care about his own interest? The psychologists may call this mismatch, but it only takes a little bit of wrongdoing to turn the business into law – and the film’s villain, some sort of corporate psychologist, very easily makes a ridiculous legal accusation that turns out to be almost impossible to refute.
Here, too, selfishness almost saves the day. The judge would rather dismiss the case because he wants to be re-elected and it would be deeply unpopular to destroy belief in Santa Claus! If the Christmas demand for toys went away, it would also cost many jobs. While they each bring different interests to their work, capital and labor agree on the central importance of trade to our lives.
Democracy and trade are at stake in this story to bring a happy Christmas to New York, and they nearly toppled because this little villain is using modern psychology to drive Christmas crazy. However, this little problem in a well-oiled system is very important. As I said, Kris lacks self-interest. Worse, he even lacks a self, being the Santa Claus everyone knows – he has no secret or private life of his own, which is why the loss of the Christmas spirit sends him to a madhouse in America. Living for others doesn’t mean being yourself – Santa’s power, generosity, comes with a form of self-denial that modern thought would condemn as madness.
Psychiatry, as the science of the self, is increasingly taking control of American life – it is at home in business and in court, not limited to hospitals. Most importantly, it has usurped the place of the church that is missing in the film. Accordingly, there is no longer any talk of virtues or moral judgment, and good men can easily be humiliated or institutionalized. Society is thus denied the example of great moral virtues, but it goes further. Capitalism organizes generosity, not just wealth, and it might deal with charity. But can everyone’s soul be so easily replaced?
America’s civil religion
At Miracle On 34th Street, the American way of life overcame the string of accidents that brought Santa to court, but prosperity had not yet spawned the new technological world we see around us these days. Presents may not be that impressive anymore, abundance could spoil us all, and I don’t know if children write Santa Claus letters. And then a fatherless child was a rarity – unfortunately it is now common. The American way of life has changed.
The entire film is a battle for Susan’s soul. She is a child of divorce – a wound that makes her unable to believe in Santa Claus. This is not a result of what her mother’s ideology would nowadays call feminism – the problem is that she has no family. But would this story still make sense? Home doesn’t matter much anymore – the majority of young people are not married and we have a generation of divorces. Our beliefs seem to have turned upside down.
Instead of Santa Claus, our civil religion is awakened these days. If the film were released today, the businesswoman’s single mother would be a crusader and the bright capital would be her home. The psychiatrist would be a valiant warrior against patriarchy and unconscious racism – and would dispel the pleasant illusions that cloud Susan’s mind as a victor. The girl would probably learn that her misfortune is not that she has no father, but that she does not know her true identity.
Indeed, the spirit of Christmas is always in danger of being lost. All too often it is sacrificed to a self-obsession that leads us to self-devaluation. This happens just as surely in making money as in the resentment that drives those who want to take revenge on our way of life for their misery.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a story that better exposes the transformations of post-war America. We used to hope that the spirit of Christmas would make us brave, and now we strive to make everyone a coward through moral blackmail, lamented alongside looming threats to freedom of expression and property rights. These are two different ways to make up for the trade’s weaknesses: hope and revenge on the country’s past. America has to choose between them. Jobs are not particularly secure and they rarely tell us what to do with our lives, what we all work for, or how to deal with things when the economy is in trouble. We need deeper resources of trust and guidance, beliefs that are more solid than trade can offer.
This is evident in a young man whom Kris Kringle encourages to embody the spirit of Christmas. Instead, the corporate psychiatrist convinces him that he has all sorts of complexes that make him unhappy. He needs therapy to realize that generosity is only a guilty disguised. Today he would go to therapy, take antidepressants, and become Bernie Bro. Human nature itself is involved in this opposition: can psychiatry talk about our virtues and greatness, or just treat us as miserable animals?
Christmas is a celebration of the goodness of being human, despite all the difficulties we face. Even for those who don’t go to church or pray to Christ, it’s more important than mere bargaining. Indeed, a decent trading company depends on a deeper belief that we can help one another and that there is a moral order in which the use of our natural powers leads to a greater good. That would be self-interest rightly understood.
Indeed, the spirit of Christmas is always in danger of being lost. All too often it is sacrificed to a self-obsession that leads us to self-devaluation. This happens just as surely in making money as in the resentment that drives those who want to take revenge on our way of life for their misery. But the danger shouldn’t make us bitter, let alone despair. Christmas, after all, tells us to be great, generous, and confident – to be something like Kris Kringle.
Postwar America went through changes that made society difficult to recognize, but we are still a trading empire and unrest remains ingrained in our characters. We find peace in Christmas, in giving and receiving gifts – because like in fairy tales, the beautiful and the good are one. As in Miracle On 34th Street, we must face our drama and remember that Christmas is not just a home and family, it is the deepest hope for human life.