5 DAYS TO CHRISTMAS: ‘Miracle on 34th Street’

5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

One of the most classic Christmas time conflicts is the battle between commercialism and sentimentality. The rise of consumerism has completely changed the meaning of Christmas and the generally accepted reason for the season seems to be to spend money on gifts, decorations, lavish meals, and general Holiday glut. It can be all too easy to forget that the Holidays are a time for family, religion, and getting caught up in the magic of the season.

Possibly the best portrayal of this epic battle of stuff versus love is 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, which features an incredibly sympathetic Santa Claus transforming capitalist giants into caring community organizers. According to IMDb, Santa Claus has been portrayed over 700 times in films and on television, but Edmund Gwenn remains the only actor to ever win an Oscar for inhabiting the iconic role. The combination of Gwenn’s fantastic performance and the story that can warm any icy heart makes Miracle on 34th Street an essential Holiday tradition.

Little Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) has been brought up by her mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara) not to believe in silly things like bedtime stories and Santa Claus. However, her imagination is lit aflame when Doris is forced to replace the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Santa at the last minute and she begins a relationship with Kris, a kindly old man who claims to be Santa Claus. Doris goes along with the charade because of the man’s popularity and the potential commercial benefits he could provide to Macy’s. Mr. Kringle’s sanity is questioned as he persists with the belief that he is in fact Santa Claus resulting in a civil trial over the existence of Santa Claus with the public immensely in favor of his existence.

What makes Miracle on 34th Street special is its ability to make every character within abandon their consumerism and support Santa Claus with their publicly stated belief. Even Mr. Macy, the cinematic archetype of capitalism personified abandons his desire for profits to state under oath that he believes in Santa Claus and Mr. Kringle is him. Even as an adult watching the film there is a feeling that it is never about a fantasy, but about a truth that ill-fated non-believers are trying to cover up.

What makes Santa Claus so real is the bubbly and convincing performance of Edmund Gwenn who can convince any person who remembers their childhood that he is Santa Claus. His boyish enthusiasm as he greets long lines of children is infectious and changes the whole perception of the mall Santa. The film purposely avoids tying Christmas to religion, but it cleverly uses Santa Claus is an allegory for Jesus as he associates with the lowest class workers of Macy’s and he selflessly allows himself to be taken down to prevent the loss of any one child’s belief. And if it is heartwarming Christmas spirit you seek, the scene where he speaks Dutch to a visiting young girl will undeniably melt even the coldest heart.

There is not as much depth to Miracle on 34th Street as certain other Christmas classics, but its ability to fully grasp the inner child in anyone makes it a Holiday classic, and a necessary addition to any family’s Christmas viewing list.

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  • Chris

    I disagree fundamentally. The movie isn’t so much about the triumph of the Christmas spirit over capitalism, but capitalism working hand in hand with the Christmas spirit.

    For example, Macy’s testimony that Kringle is Santa is motivated, quite explicitly, by his fear of negative publicity from stating that Kringle isn’t. Gailey defends Kringle in court for the publicity of winning the case. The judge wants to rule in Kringle’s favor to avoid losing his re-election. Etc. and so on.

  • Gailey’s original motivations had nothing to do with publicity, but when he realizes the potential he uses it to spread the joy of Christmas to combat the selfishness that is ever-present.

    My perception was that at first capitalism is the motivator, but eventually they let go and get caught up in the season. When the prosecutor’s son goes on the stand for instance the judge and prosecutor seem affected beyond their realm of reason and are moved on an emotional level, stirring up their own childhood memories.

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