In 1947, George Seaton and Valentine Davies wrote one of the most beloved Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street. The film presents the funny idea of criticizing commercialism by having respectable people take Santa Claus to court under threat of commitment to an insane asylum. Big business, politics, and law, as well as medical science and psychiatry, are all involved in this story: as the obstacles to a girl getting her Christmas wish, a family.
This movie won three Oscars out of four nominations, two for the writers and a third for Edmund Gwenn, Best Supporting Actor, who offered the best image of Santa in Hollywood history. Perhaps its popularity has to do with its similarity to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the most successful modern Christmas story. Both are tales of charity winning over the spirit of commerce—about the struggle in our souls between self-interest and faith.
The Spirit of Commerce
The story begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which kicks off the holiday season and also, of course, the shopping season. Kris Kringle appears providentially to lead the parade. He notices with some indignation that the actor playing Santa in the parade is drunk; far from spreading the spirit of Christmas, the impostor has lost it himself. This first vice we see in the movie is low-class behavior, something that at least at the time of the film’s release, no respectable American would sanction.
A remarkable woman, Doris (played by the lovely Maureen O’Hara), hires Kris to play Santa, first for the parade and then for Macy’s. She’s something of a progressive prototype, not only very successful in business, but thoroughly modern—a divorced single mother and rationalist educator of her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), whose imagination she has stunted on the grounds that without fantastic hope there can be no disappointment. Don’t ask how she feels about God.
Doris’s spiritual weakness then leads Kris to the mental asylum and the New York Supreme Court. She listens to an obviously wicked man because he claims scientific authority—a psychiatrist—and because she cannot bring herself to believe in miracles. The spirit of commerce has made a coward of her—she fears her employer will be held liable should Kris prove a madman, and that she would be held liable in turn. She doesn’t want to be personally responsible even for trusting him, so she abandons him to his fate.
Thus, the Spirit of commerce and the Spirit of Christmas come into conflict. With this setup, you might expect the film to suggest greed as the vice that damns respectable people, but it’s cowardice instead. In a way, it can’t be greed, because it takes work, wealth, and commerce to make gifts, and how could you have Christmas without gifts? Poverty doesn’t breed generosity. But it must be cowardice, because poverty is tied up with suffering and we need wealthy people to be courageous if they’re going to help those worse off—as there’s always a temptation to hide behind money and simply abandon society.
Of course, Miracle On 34th Street is a fairy tale—it identifies the beautiful and the good. The spirit of Christmas still lives in American children’s hearts, and it overwhelms the court of law, first as the comical testimony of the prosecutor’s son, who believes in Santa because his dad told him to, and then as a preposterous parade of mailmen carrying 21 sacks full of children’s letters, compelling the judge to dismiss the case against Kringle. Who would dare break their little hearts?
Self-Interest Rightly Understood
We ought to reflect on the film’s logic more deeply: Miracle’s version of the American compromise seems at first to reconcile the two Spirits. Kids ask Kris for gifts and if Macy’s doesn’t have what they want, he sends their doting parents elsewhere. Employees and clients alike are shocked, but Mr. Macy sees the point of this goodwill policy. Nobody expects capitalists to be decent, so it’s a welcome reprieve from cynicism. Earning gratitude can be surprisingly easy, and so this Santa Claus is a big hit in commercial America.
The capitalists would have done well enough but for the scientists, who introduce fear into the matter. Kris is not acting for the sake of making money—he really believes he’s Santa, and that’s taking things too far. It seems Kris is simply lacking in self-interest, and what kind of man doesn’t concern himself with his own interest? The psychologists might call this maladjustment, but it only takes a little malfeasance to turn business into law—and the movie’s villain, a kind of corporate psychologist, very easily makes a ridiculous legal accusation that turns out to be almost impossible to refute.
Here again, self-interest 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 Yuletide demand for toys disappeared, it would cost a lot of jobs, too. While they each bring different interests to bear on their work, capital and labor are agreed on the centrality of commerce to our lives.
Democracy and commerce are at stake in this story of bringing a happy Christmas to New York, and they are almost overturned because of this petty villain who uses modern psychology to reduce Christmas to madness. This small problem in a well-oiled system is, however, very important. Kris is, as I said, lacking in self-interest. Worse, he even lacks a self, since he’s Santa Claus, whom everyone knows—he has no secret or private life of his own, which is why the loss of Christmas spirit in America sends him to the madhouse. To live for others is not to be oneself—Santa’s power, generosity, comes with a form of self-denial that modern thinking would damn as madness.
Psychiatry as the science of selves is taking control of more and more of American life—it’s at home in corporations as much as in the courts of law, rather than being restricted to hospitals. Above all, it has usurped the place of the church, which is absent in the movie. Accordingly, there is no more 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 moves on. Capitalism organizes generosity, not just prosperity, and it might deal with charity. But can everyone’s soul be as easily replaced?
America’s Civil Religion
In Miracle On 34th Street, the American way of life overcame the series of accidents that led Santa Claus to court, but then prosperity had not yet produced the new technological world we see around us nowadays. Gifts might not be as impressive anymore, abundance might spoil us all, and I don’t know if kids write Santa letters. And back then a fatherless child was a rarity—now it’s sadly common. The American way of life has changed.
The entire movie is a struggle for Susan’s soul. She’s a child of divorce—a wound that leaves her incapable of believing in Santa Claus. This isn’t a result of her mother’s ideology, which we would call feminism today—the problem is, she has no family. But would this story make sense anymore? Home hardly matters as it once did—a majority of young people aren’t married, and we’ve had a generation of divorce. Our beliefs seem to have turned upside down.
Instead of Santa, nowadays our civil religion turns on being woke. If the film were released today, the businesswoman single mother would be a crusader, and woke capital would be her home. The psychiatrist would be a brave warrior against the patriarchy and unconscious racism—and would be victorious in dispelling the pleasant illusions that cloud Susan’s mind. Probably, the girl would learn that her unhappiness is not because she has no father, but because she doesn’t know her real identity.
The spirit of Christmas is, indeed, always in danger of being lost. It is all too often sacrificed to a self-obsession that leads us to self-debasement. This happens as surely in money-making 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 reveals the transformations of post-War America. Once we had hope that the spirit of Christmas could make us brave, and now we find ourselves beset by an effort to make everyone a coward by moral blackmail delivered alongside looming threats to freedom of speech and property rights. These are two different ways of making up for the weaknesses of commerce: hope and revenge on the country’s past. America has to choose between them. Jobs aren’t particularly secure and they hardly tell us what to do with our lives, what we’re all working for, or how to deal with things when the economy is in trouble. We need deeper resources of confidence and guidance, beliefs more solid than commerce can offer.
This is revealed in a young man whom Kris Kringle encourages to embody the spirit of Christmas. The corporate psychiatrist convinces him instead that he’s got all sorts of complexes making him miserable. He’s in need of therapy in order to move him to recognize that generosity is merely guilt disguised. Today, he’d go to therapy, take anti-depressants, and become a Bernie Bro. Human nature itself is involved in this opposition: can psychiatry speak about our virtues and greatness, or only treat us as miserable beasts?
Christmas is a celebration of the goodness of being human, despite all the difficulties we must face. Even for those who don’t go to church or pray to Christ, it’s something more important than mere commerce. Indeed, a decent commercial society depends on a deeper belief that we can help each other and that there is a moral order within which the use of our natural powers leads to a greater good. That would be self-interest rightly understood.
The spirit of Christmas is, indeed, always in danger of being lost. It is all too often sacrificed to a self-obsession that leads us to self-debasement. This happens as surely in money-making as in the resentment that drives those who want to take revenge on our way of life for their misery. But the danger should not make us bitter, much less despairing. Christmas, after all, asks of us to be great, generous, and confident—to be somewhat like Kris Kringle.
Post-War America has gone through changes that make society somewhat difficult to recognize, but we are still a commercial empire and restlessness remains fixed in our character. We find some rest in Christmas, in the giving and receiving of gifts—because, as in fairy tales, the beautiful and the good are one. As in Miracle On 34th Street, we have to face up to our drama and remember Christmas is not just about home and family but the deepest hope for human life.