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Miracle on 34th Street (1947) is the finest cinematic exploration of the commercialization of Christmas. The central story is that Kris Kringle, a man who looks like and believes he is Santa Claus, is hired to play Santa Claus at Macy’s department store. When it is revealed that he believes he is the real Santa Claus, Kris must defend his sanity in court.
Rather than condemn commercialization, Miracle on 34th Street recognizes that Christmas and commercialism are like milk and cookies—you can’t have one without the other. It pragmatically accepts commercialism as a part of the celebration of Christmas in America. Gift giving requires a marketplace. Kris is not opposed to working for a department store in which the prime purpose of having children visit Santa is so that moms and dads will buy things while they are there. He is highly knowledgeable of the toy market. He knows where and for how much toys are sold. As if to drive home the point, Kris sings the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market” to Susan (played by a young Natalie Wood). Insofar as markets are where toys are bought and sold, Kris accepts them as useful and a legitimate part of Christmas festivities.
Self-Interest and the Common Good
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville explains that the American morality is the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood. Enlightened selfishness motivates Americans to be honest and self-restrained, for they know that these virtues are the surest way to get what one wants from others. Americans, Tocqueville observes, love to praise how their self-interest produces the common good.
Nevertheless, Tocqueville sees evidence of Americans giving themselves over to “unreflective” impulses of goodwill towards others. Americans are, as he says, better than they say. They demonstrate through their actions not their words sincere self-forgetting behavior.
Miracle on 34th Street explores how calculated self-interest can ameliorate some of the worst tendencies of commercialism. Self-interest rightly understood does what Tocqueville says. Yet, self-interest also provides “cover” for characters to act on more noble grounds. Characters makes decisions that require loyalty and resolve that go beyond mere self-interest.
In the first half of the film, Kris inspires Macy’s to adopt a policy that furthers its profits and the customers’ interests. After Mr. Shellhammer, the head of the Macy’s toy department, gives Kris a list of overstocked toys to suggest children, Kris rips up the list. Kris objects on the grounds that a child should not manipulated into asking for a toy that she does not want to conceal Mr. Shellhammer’s mistake of ordering too many of the same toy. Using the child’s trust in Santa Claus to do so violates that child’s trust. Making the child happy is Kris’s top priority. And Kris sees how self-interest can be better harnessed to produce that outcome.
Kris tells parents where to find hard to find toys and their price at other stores. The parents are deeply grateful. Their gratitude promises to translate into customer loyalty. Mr. Macy is delighted with the new “merchandizing policy.” He sees an opportunity to be “the store that puts public service ahead of profit and make more profit.” He directs the advertising department to prepare directories of competitors’ advertisements so that store employees can readily direct customers to find the toys they are looking for.
The campaign proves wildly successful and Macy’s profits are up. Here we see a happy resolution that results in increased profits for businesses and improved service—better information and less exploitation—for customers. While not motivated by increasing profit, Kris’s example is, nonetheless, imitable by people motivated by profit. Customers, moreover, are not fools. They expect businesses to try to influence them, but are receptive so long as they benefit in turn. Even as one mother thanks Mr. Shellhammer for Macy’s new policy, she calls it “a stunt.” She knows that Macy’s would not do anything that would cut into profits.
The Meaning of Christmas
What does it mean for Christmas to come first? Like many Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street steers clear of explicit religious images and messages. No baby Jesuses in mangers here. While the film occasionally is corny, at least it avoids the worst of Hollywood’s “piety” as parodied in Hail Caesar! Miracle on 34th Street struggles to indicate without naming what Christmas is about and for that reason better pays tribute to its Christian origins.
The closest the film comes to providing an understanding of Christmas comes from Alfred, the 17 year old Macy’s janitor whom Kris befriends. Alfred tells Kris that he plays Santa at the local “Y” and gives presents to the children there. Kris asks him why. Alfred says that he likes seeing the “Christmas look” on their faces and that it makes him feel “good and kind of important.” Kris approves and we can understand why. Alfred is a janitor. He’s accustom to being overlooked. Playing Santa makes him feel important. It uplifts him. Christmas is a reminder of the creatureliness and dignity of every person.
But the best image of the meaning of Christmas is Alfred’s description of the “Christmas look” on the faces of children. We see joy and hope in the faces of children and we adults are joyful and hopeful in turn. Christmas recognizes a community of the joyful and hopeful reflected in the faces of its members. In this way, Christmas prefigures the Christian hope to one day see the face of God. Alfred knows the goodness of Christmas by seeing it reflected in the faces of children.
The second half of the film puts self-interest rightly understood to the test. When it revealed that Kris believes he is Santa, Mrs. Walker (played by Maureen O’Hara) and Mr. Shellhammer consult two experts. The outside consulting doctor recommends that Kris is harmless and should be allowed to continue employment at Macy’s as Santa. Mr. Sawyer, a pretend psychologist working at Macy’s, is annoyed that Kris suspects that he is an imposter and argues that Kris is mad and will become violent. Kris is rightfully wary of Mr. Sawyer’s influence. Mr. Sawyer preys on lonely Alfred. Mr. Sawyer tells Alfred that his desire to play Santa means that he must have done something bad in his past and fills him with bad Freudian psychobabble about hating his father. Outraged Kris confronts Mr. Sawyer and says that he knows he is fraud and that he plans to tell Mr. Macy. Kris bobs Mr. Sawyer on the head with an umbrella. That last act was all Mr. Sawyer needed to persuade Mrs. Walker and Mr. Shellhammer that Kris turned violent. Mr. Sawyer lies to prevents Kris from keeping his appointment with Mr. Macy and has Kris taken into custody.
Americans Are Better Than Their Doctrines
Kris is at his lowest point. He is an old man who believes he is Santa Claus and who must prove that he is not insane. Yet, Kris’s friends do not abandon him. That they stand by him can only be partially explained by recourse to their self-interest. Mr. Gailey, a young lawyer who befriended Kris, agrees to represent Kris at a hearing in part to build a reputation for himself. But Mr. Gailey stands by Kris even when his firm lets him go for accepting an unorthodox client.
The trial becomes a media sensation. Aside from perhaps Mr. Sawyer, the participants in the hearing uniformly view Kris as a harmless, well intentioned old man and they look for ways to reconcile their duty and Kris’ identity.
When Mr. Macy provides character testimony for Kris, he is asked if he really believes that Kris is Santa. He worries that Macy’s will receive bad publicity if he says his Santa is a fraud. But he reflects on the faces of the children who waited to see Kris as Santa and then solemnly affirms that he believes Kris is Santa. Sure it is to Mr. Macy’s material advantage to back Kris as Santa. But he also recognizes that it would scandalize children to say that Kris is a fraud. Even Mr. Macy is better than a mere profiteer.
Neither the prosecutor nor the judge want to be on the side of arguing or ruling that the man widely beloved as Santa is a fraud. Judge Harper discovers that his grandchildren and wife resent that he is presiding over the case. The judge’s political advisor—an old school political boss—Charlie (played brilliantly by William Frawley, better known as I Love Lucy’s Fred Mertz) foresees that this case is toxic for Judge Harper’s reelection and will cost him the support of unions. In a superb monologue, Charlie hypotheses what will happen if Judge Harper rules against Kris. Children won’t hang up their stocking, toys aren’t purchased, toy manufacturers will have to lay off union employees. Even hard nosed Charlie who seems solely concerned with political advantage observes that ruling against Kris will hurt the Salvation Army that has Santa Clauses stationed at every city corner to take donations during the holiday season. Judge Harper decides that “the tradition of American justice demands a broad and unprejudiced view” of belief in Santa Claus and agrees to hear evidence on both sides.
The District Attorney’s wife intentionally needles her husband when she asks why he is “persecuting” Kris. The D.A. retorts that he is “prosecuting” Kris and that he “likes the old man too.” He regrets taking the case, but insists that it is his duty to see that Kris is put away. During the hearing, defense attorney Mr. Gailey calls the D.A’s son to the stand who reveals that his father had told him that Kris was Santa Claus. Confronted with his son’s confidence that his father would never lie to him, the D.A. concedes the existence of Santa Claus. Instead he requests that Mr. Gailey present “authoritative proof” that Kris is “the one and only Santa Claus.”
Evidence comes by way of the United States Post Office. In the mail sorting room, a mail sorter finds a letter addressed to Kris Kringle at the court house. He calls his foreman, Lou, over to point out the novel address. Lou says the “kid is right” and shows him the newspaper that Kris is on trial. Hatching a plan, the mail sorter suggests that they deliver all the bags of letters for Santa Claus to Kris at the court house. He appeals to Lou on the grounds that it would be great to “let somebody else worry about it.” Cheerfully Lou leaves to carry out the plan and the mail sorter happily sings jingle bells. Their motivation seems straightforwardly pragmatic. They cannot know that they will materially aid Kris’s case. But both Lou and the mail sorter seem unusually jolly if their sole goal is to clear out a room.
In the penultimate scene, the U.S post office delivers children’s letters to Santa Claus to Kris thus authoritatively identifying him as Santa Claus. In the happiest moment of federalism, Judge Harper announces that since “the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus,” the court of New York “will not dispute it.”
Miracle on 34th Street’s happy resolution is driven by self-interest of the judge, the prosecutor, the U.S. postal workers, and Mr. Gailey. Nevertheless, self-interest alone is insufficient to explain all the ways in which characters go out of their way for each other. Americans are, as Tocqueville says, better than they say, but the doctrine lets Americans appear more self-sufficient than they really are.