Every year on Thanksgiving, I sit down and watch Miracle on 34th Street — a movie that fittingly begins with the famed Macy’s Day Parade — and every year, I completely lose my mind over Santa Claus speaking Dutch to a diasporic little girl post-WWII. As her caregiver explains with great apology to the department store Santa that she could not convince the little girl that he was an American Santa and would not be able to understand her, he hoists her into his lap and begins speaking to her happily and fluently before singing “Sinterklaas Kapoentje” with her — eyes all alight and a giant grin spread over her face as if you’re watching a very real little miracle instead of a movie.
It’s a scene that, come hell or high water and regardless of the year I’ve had, sends me into an emotional tizzy and warms my heart to bursting — not just because of the time of year, but because it’s the first reminder that Miracle on 34th Street demonstrates that cynicism and doubt on a singular level can still, at times, lead to deep happiness for someone else, given just the smallest bit of effort.
The 1947 movie begins with Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) arriving in New York City because he’s feeling a little down over the state of Christmastime, and the way that people have started to consider the holiday. After stumbling into the tail end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and making complaints about a drunken Santa about to board his float, Kris finds himself hired as the replacement Santa by Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), a single mother raising her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to only see the logistics of life, devoid of fantasy, make believe, magic, and most of all: tall tales like Santa Claus. Walker’s plan for staunch perceptions of reality are, of course, partially disrupted by the film’s love interest — Doris and Susan’s friendly, handsome lawyer next door neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) — whose penchant for imagination, optimism, and big dreams melds just so with the fact that he’s utterly besotted with the pair.
The story isn’t just about Fred Gailey changing the hearts and minds of Doris and Susan, however. Miracle on 34th Street is, in a way that seems too acute to put so bluntly, about Santa believing in everyone else as much as they believe in him. In the case of this movie, that Santa happens to be Gwenn’s joyous, caustic Kringle who is very much the bonafide, very real, very not-make-believe Santa Claus. With Kris Kringle’s declaration as such — delivered in a jolly fashion and without a pinch of irony, of course — he’s deemed a dangerous lunatic and is threatened by an ego-bruised psychologist to be committed. But the love of children, a little Christmas magic, and an upstanding lawyer all see Kringle though as the State of New York proves, without a shred of doubt, that Kris is Santa Claus.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most heartwarming stories one can think of, and paired with Wood’s childish wonder and Gwenn’s dedication to truth, joy, and goodness in his role as Santa Claus, it’s easy to believe that the film is still an absolute must for those needing some faith in their lives during the holiday season, nearly 75 years after it’s debut. Ironically, though, the faith in humanity portion of Miracle on 34th Street actually comes from the naysayers and everyman (and -women) of New York City, each one just trying to get by. One of the biggest delights of the film comes from the repeated ability for the question of what we believe vs. what we see to be transformed into more of a question about our values as people living amongst other people, and the potential to be empathetic.
One of the film’s first examples of this comes from the minor quashing of department store mogul greed. As Kris sits on his throne with swaths of children waiting to tell him what they want for Christmas, a child tells him about a firetruck he wants so badly — a gift that his mother grumpily tells Kris is unavailable at Macy’s. Kris smiles at the child and guarantees him that he will absolutely get his fire truck for Christmas — news that sends the boy bouncing along and the mother in quite the tizzy, to which Kris responds by telling her where among competing department stores she’s able to buy it, and the price she can expect to pay. Flabbergasted by the fact that Macy’s was “the kind of store who thinks about the customer and not just profits”, she tells the floor manager how much she loves Macy’s new policy and will be returning again.
To someone trying to run a large department store before the official era of the “price match guarantee”, the news of Kringle’s new, unofficial customer guarantee is nothing if not puzzling to the store’s owner, H.R. Macy. While this would normally be easy grounds for firing, Macy appeals to his better judgement and keeps Kris on as Santa — not because it’s the right thing to do for the old man or for the gratefulness of the customers who can save some time and money, but because it seems like a solid publicity move and one that makes him look far more altruistic than he would have ever considered being on his own accord.
This example is followed up in the second act of the film, as the owner of Gimbels department store (which, in the face of the success of Macy’s new policy, also takes on a “if we don’t have it, we’ll send you to who does!” approach for holiday shoppers) and Mr. Macy have a tension-comedy gamble for who can donate the most money to a surgeon that Kris offers his own paycheck to in front of newspaper reporters. Both men, solely for the sake of looking good, are willing to do good despite their s
The film’s conclusion similarly lends itself to this accidentally humanist phenomenon. As Kris Kringle sits on the stand at a sanity hearing between himself and Macy’s villainous in-house psychologist, Dr Sawyer, over the question of whether or not Kris is the real Santa, a number of things transpire for minor, near-uncredited characters. While newspapers all over New York print headlines like “Doctors Doubt Sanity of Santa Who Launched Good Will Campaign” and “Kris Kringle Crazy? Kourt Kase Koming “Kalamity!” Kry Kiddies” (got to love that alliteration), Judge Henry Harper is faced with a tough decision: does he rule logically that the man called Kris Kringle is crazy, critically disappointing his grandchildren who are already not speaking to him for being so mean to Santa Claus; or does he rule in favor of magic and the season, letting children all over New York (and even the world) believe that Santa is real and that he is a good man for letting that kind of joy exist in the world? After all, his political advisor tells him, there’s no harm in it and it makes him look really good for when re-elections come around again!
This consideration sees Judge Harper allow much more leeway in his courtroom than would ordinarily be deemed appropriate; with Kris Kringle speaking fact (despite it sounding absurd to some), and cross-questioning from both Mr. Gailey and the prosecutor that makes the whole thing sound like a game. But even Judge Harper’s ability to suspend his disbelief in favor of a positive forward-facing image is giving some slack thanks to the apathy and cheek from the men working for the United States Postal Service. Following a rather hard day of the case in which Mr. Gailey seems nearly backed into a corner by the prosecutor hell-bent on sending Kris to the sanitarium, the movie cuts to a scene at the local mail-sorting office where the men are talking about the trial.
Instead of shrugging it off as a side conversation and carrying on with their work, one of the men comes up with an idea that inadvertently kills two birds with one stone: “We get thousands of letters to Santa and Kris Kringle during Christmas that we can’t do anything with — why not just send them straight to the courthouse! It’s his mail after all!” The group of men laugh it up and ship the letters off to Mr. Gailey and Kris at the courthouse — later revealing the sacks upon sacks of mail to be the thing that is just enough for the pressured judge to rule in favor of Kris being the real Santa Claus.
While this could be dismissed as a funny prank that worked out well, it serves as a happy example of how the smallest bit of effort can change everything — even when the effort is originally one born from a joke or from just trying to get the job done, rather than a desire to actually settle a legal matter by proving the legitimacy of Kris Kringle’s Santadom. Heck, even Doris’ invitation for Kris to get his “job” at Macy’s as Santa is one that comes from her just trying to fill a spot in time to save her own butt!
Don’t get me wrong, Miracle on 34th Street is very much a movie about good people. Fred Gailey not only puts Kris up in his own apartment, but quits his job at a high-paying law firm to make sure that Kris Kringle has the best representation possible in his case, just because he’s a good guy. Alfred — a janitor at Macy’s and a friend of Kringle’s — helps Kris whenever he can and loves to play Santa for the kids down at his local YMCA. The proprietor of the pensioner’s home that Kris originally stays in makes a case to the screwy Dr. Sawyer that even if Kris is mad, he’s kind and gentle and only wants to do good for others. The film is full of them: people who are trying their best to do good by themselves by doing good for others directly. That’s the Christmas magic, and that’s what we expect from old, charming, schmaltzy Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street.
What sets the movie apart in this case, is the idea that everyone — not just the intentionally good people — has the potential to be good, even when their intentions happen to be (or at least, begin as being something self-serving. With tons of holiday movies moving from the good of everyone, the good of family, the bad of family, and everything in between, Miracle on 34th Street remains one of the few films to admit that while the holiday season is one built (even nearly 100 years ago) on a bed of cynicism and greed, people ultimately want to do what’s best for others. During a period where that same cynicism and greed and focus on capitalism rules the conversation around gift-giving, holidays, and kinship, let this film serve as a reminder that while the little things we do don’t seem like much these days, they can sometimes make someone else’s world just a little bit brighter.