Exegesis, Movies, Reviews

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) :: Review

Yesterday I sat down with my mum, ate some chocolate, and watched the classic Miracle on 34th Street. It was such a cute movie, but it struck me differently than other Santa Claus movies like The Polar Express, and Klaus (I cry every time). Kris Kringle in Miracle is a profoundly syntheist incarnation of Santa, and that made me want to believe in him in a way I never had before. So, I figured I’d write about it.

Scenes

Doris Walker telling Susan Walker that Santa Claus is not real
Kris Kringle teaching little Susan Walker how to play pretend (as a monkey).
Exhausted Mother telling Macy’s representative that she appreciates their Santa Claus’ willingness to direct them to other stores for the toys they’re looking for.
Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimble publically showing their willingness to send customers to each other if they don’t have a product.
Post Office workers deciding to send all the Santa Claus letters to Kris Kringle to get them off their floor.
Fred Gailey proving in court that Kris Kringle is legitimately Santa Claus due to the U.S. Post Office sending him Santa’s mail and the Post Office’s legal responsibility not to misdirect mail.
(Left to right) Fred Gailey, Doris Walker, Kris Kringle, and young Susan Walker stand before a Christmas tree.

Summary

After the appearance of a sweet old man who proclaims himself to be Kris Kringle, the real Santa Claus, the holiday season in New York is changed forever. While working for Macy’s as a department store Santa, Kris Kringle directs people to other stores for their toys, which delights many customers who are exhuasted of shopping for Christmas. The public response is so positive, it creates a wave of generous policy changes throughout department stores, not just Macy’s. At the same time however, Kris Kringle is screened for delusions and put in a psych ward. To free him, his lawyer Fred Gailey argues that Kris Kringle is, in fact, Santa Claus. Gailey shrewdly publicizes the case, which gets public opinion on his side and has the unexpected result of the New York Post Office sending Kringle all their Santa Claus letters. Gailey presents the letters as proof that Kringle is, in fact, Santa Claus. The judge, wanting to be re-elected for office, accepts the evidence as proof, and Kris Kringle is heralded as the real Santa Claus.

Thoughts

Throughout the film, two different approaches to Santa Claus are portrayed, most easily descibed here as the logos and mythos mindsets. The Walkers present a strictly logos mindset at the beginning of the film, where Gailey and Kringle present a mythos mindset. Gailey articulates the mythos mindset when he tries to teach little Susan Walker about myths and stories because of their ability to give meaning to her life. He argues with Doris Walker about where value lies at around 1:10:00, and says that meaning and value come from the intangibles that are indirectly on trial at the same time as Kris Kringle. While Walker argues that you must be realistic to get ahead, Gailey argues that the realistic way of viewing the world, in the long run, doesn’t make things worthwhile.

Walker and Gailey are charicatures of the logos and mythos mindsets respectively, but the film itself doesn’t seem to agree with one over the other. It does the interesting work of demonstrating how, at every step in Kringle’s journey, the people around him stand to benefit pragmatically from his mythology. Macy’s and other department stores see enormous profits when they embrace Kringle’s policy of directing people to other stores according to their needs. The Post Office is able to clean house by sending Kringle all the letters they can’t send anywhere else. The judge presiding over Kringle’s case wants to be re-elected, and affirms Kringle’s mythology in order to achieve that goal. In the end, being realistic and sentimental were both facilitated by Kringle’s mythology. Remarkably, pragmatism and sentimentality weave together to incarnate a literal Santa Claus in Kris Kringle. For at least the rest of this man’s life, Santa Claus is real, and he lives in New York.

Aside from the legal decision, the film ends without asserting whether Kris Kringle is literally the mythological Santa Claus or not. We don’t know if he used to live at the North Pole, owned reindeer, or actually gifted every child presents on the night of christmas eve, and I feel this is intentional. How literal Santa Claus is doesn’t change the value of him as a mythological figure. This is a profoundly syntheist assertion, and one the film runs with. The kindness, generosity, and global love Santa represents bring value to the world, whether or not he literally exists is irrelevant.

Further, and the part I find most fun, is how the myth of Santa Claus worked to incarnate him in Kris Kringle. People who did not know each other, from various walks of life and occupations, somehow cooperated together to not only make the world a better place, but to also manifest their myth in a physical form. Though fictitious, this story is an example of magic at work; the myth of Santa Claus had power over New York. It was used by many different people for many different reasons, but it brought power to all of them. Magic in action looks very much like what this movie shows. There’s no glitter or sparkles or fancy fireballs, but there’s power nonetheless.


I didn’t grow up with Santa. My parents thought if I learned they lied to me about Santa, then I wouldn’t believe them about God. In a way they were right, as long as God is a tangible entity. For a fundamentalist, God’s power must be concrete and demonstrable as a literal entity for it to matter at all. But Miracle on 34th Street shows us otherwise. The intangibles of life, the symbolism, myth, and value, can be just as powerful and important as the tangibles.

So, from here on out I’ll say that Santa Claus will be embraced as a Terranic myth, a symbol of worldwide goodwill, charity, and benevolence. His holiday, Xmas, will encourage meditation on the mindset he symbolizes, and the generous rituals he requires. Put out your cookies and milk! Put up the stockings! Donate to charity! Give gifts to your loved ones! Spend time with family! And meditate on global goodwill, for Santa visits every home.

Merry Xmas everyone!

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