Believe and Receive
By Danielle Cole
Miracle on 34th Street simply described: a film about a charming Santa Claus who brings happiness and a renewal of belief to the city of New York. A more complex description: a film about the development of secular values and faith without evidence in a developing economy rife with commercialism.
The year of release was 1947 at a time when America was recovering from both World War II and the Great Depression. We were a nation actively changing and ready for still more changes in culture, social class, and politics. Even so we were a very religious group. 1948 was the first year Gallup asked Americans about their religious affiliation and 91% identified as Christian. Church attendance was on the rise and steadily increased to the end of the 1950’s. In a time of strong religious affiliation, it is interesting that a film about a Christian holiday should have no overt religious themes. How would American religious values continue in a climate of change?
Richard Holloway, a bishop later turned agnostic, writes in Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics, “If the erosion of tradition is one of the main ingredients in the moral confusion of our time, the other is the crisis of authority.” Tradition often gets run over by modernization; the original meaning gets lost or people become interested in other things. 1940’s America was ripe for new ideas and a reconfiguration of old traditions as life became newly prosperous for many after the harsh conditions of the Great Depression. Holloway argues that changing tradition is not a dangerous thing for a society to experience. Rather he states, “Part of the recovery of a common morality will involve us in a process of demythologizing previous moral traditions; and part of it will involve us in the painstaking construction of new traditions.” The character arc of Doris Walker is a good example of this idea. When we meet her she is pragmatic and self-sufficient. We are given a scant dose of her background when she lets slip that Susan’s father was no Prince Charming. It seems as a result, she relies solely on her ability to think rationally and that she has lost any sense of faith in invisible constructs. She views ideas like Santa Claus as hurtful to children and does not allow Susan to believe in fantasies, fairytales, or myths. Her personal identification with tradition was possibly quelled by negative life experiences and disappointments. Yet amazingly by the end of the film, she not only believes in Santa Claus, but insists that Susan believe too. For her, the tradition begins to have meaning once she has a personal relationship with it. A relationship forged from a combination of experience both with Kringle and the fervent moral example of Mr. Gailey. The progression of her belief is a somewhat common example. She begins to doubt her own focus on what it means to “get ahead” after an argument with Mr. Gailey. Two scenes later, she agrees with Susan that Kringle really is Santa. This is the way it can be with faith: sometimes it just creeps up. People find themselves suddenly having faith in something without any common sense explanation. As Doris learns from Mr. Gailey, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”
So where does faith creep up from? The event that ends Kringle’s hearing is the postal delivery of the dead letters addressed to Santa Claus. It enables the judge to rule that Kringle is indeed Santa Claus based on the actions of a branch of the federal government. He can state such without expressing his personal opinion. Rabbi Harold Kushner posits in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that the world has order because of God and that chaos exists outside of God’s will. So that belief in God is found in recognizing the order in the universe and accepting that bad things happen with no real explanation. There is order to the things we believe in, whether they involve God or not. That is one of the elements that makes faith possible; the things we most believe in are usually reliable, consistent, and almost predictable. Faith can come from a faceless sense of order just as the ruling from the post office. It is not an individual but an organized branch of the government that continues and supports the tradition of Santa Claus. This action allows tradition to maintain a consistency with the past but also to move forward with modernization, as Holloway suggests. The post office helps to give new belief and faith to an old tradition. An action that creates a sense of order.
While there is a strong moral component to the story, we still find commercialism woven throughout. Kringle is instructed to push the overstocked toys to the children who come to see him. He balks at this idea and states to Alfred the janitor, “That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years, the way they commercialize Christmas.” But Kringle turns out to be a rather good salesman anyway; informing parents where they can locate the toys their children yearn for, be it at Macy’s or elsewhere. This sales tactic turns out to be very profitable for Macy’s as it increases customer loyalty. Mr. Macy surely would not have supported Kringle’s referrals purely on the notion of good will. He supports it only to increase his revenue. Profits make him a believer. Susan also becomes a believer as a result of material gain. We see her begin to believe on the basis that Kringle is “so kind and nice and jolly,” and that, “He’s not like anyone else.” This convinces her, momentarily, that, “He must be Santa.” However, on Christmas morning she is distraught not to receive the house she asked for and tells Kringle she was wrong for believing. Doris encourages her to have faith in Kringle anyway. We then see Susan mindlessly repeating, “I believe, I believe, it’s silly but I believe, ” in simple obedience to the authority of her mother. But, in the end, it is seeing the house exactly as she wished it to be that finally convinces her. Not the consistency of character in Kringle or Mr. Gailey. Not the “spirit of Christmas.” I suppose though that showing the change in one’s belief system via film would be a difficult task. The earlier change in Doris’s faith is very subtle and easy to miss. The film needed a big reveal, a visible declaration of faith. Susan asking for and receiving such a lavish gift speaks to the larger-than-life quality of the tradition of Santa Claus.
I was also encouraged to take a more hopeful view by Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he discusses the place of happiness in society. He believes that happiness is the end of all means. It is what all other virtues will lead us to.
“Therefore, we call absolutely final that which is always desired for itself and never as a means to something else. Now happiness more than anything else answers to this description. For happiness we always desire for its own sake and never as a means to something else, whereas honor, pleasure, intelligence, and virtue we desire partly for their own sakes…but partly also as means to happiness, because we suppose they will prove instruments of happiness. Happiness, on the other hand, nobody desires for the sake of these things, nor indeed as a means to anything else at all.”
Mr. Gailey decides to act as Kringle’s lawyer because he believes it to be the right thing to do. He explains to Doris, “It’s not just Santa on trial. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.” It is honor and virtue for Mr. Gailey, and thus, Aristotle would argue, happiness. He believes in these intangibles so strongly that he pleads with Kringle when he is ready to give up, “What happens to you matters to a lot of other people. People like me who believe in what you stand for…You can’t quit. You can’t let them down.” And so it is with Susan and the house. It represents, to her, the opportunity to have a family and the freedom to play on a backyard swing. Simple joys of life.
Miracle on 34th Street gave me pause. I initially felt a sense of hope, optimism, and belief in the goodness of man. After further thought about the characters, I felt pessimism creep in as I saw telltale signs of our individualist culture; such as Mr. Macy’s support of Kringle because it made for a good photo op and a boost in sales. But what I ultimately am left with is the sense that we are all imperfect people struggling with our own inconsistencies of character. We all need some introspection to create a broader view of the world. And maybe we all need Santa Claus. Maybe we all need something to help us believe when common sense doesn’t add up. Kringle’s purpose throughout the film is to make children happy. If we focus on making children or any other person happy, aren’t we then doing something great for society? Aristotle believed that to be true, “For though the good of an individual by himself is something worth working for, to ensure the good of a nation or a state is nobler and more divine.” We cannot avoid living in a commercial society but we can avoid allowing that commercialism to become the tradition instead of letting it be kindness and joy and love.
Danielle Cole is a Philadelphia-based occasional philosopher who practices psychotherapy in the suburbs. She loves films of all kinds, especially those with protracted scenes of everyday life and any art that has a personal vision.