Just stick with me on this for a bit.
The skepticism of Doris Walker, a bright, capable, divorced mother, should be viewed as a strength. Instead, it becomes apparent that this trait, along with her drive to instill a skeptical outlook in her daughter, comes from a place of personal pain and fear. The message is clear; skeptics, especially women skeptics, are callous people with trust issues, and in need of saving.
Fred Gailey, a handsome attorney, comes to Doris's and her daughter Susan's rescue. He's concerned about mom's refusal to teach Susan fairy tales. Fred wins Doris over with an incredible display of faith and friendship; he takes in Kris Kringle, the Macy's Santa who Doris has hired, and who claims to be the real Santa Claus. When Kris is threatened with being locked up in a mental institution, Fred successfully defends him in court, arguing that Kris is indeed the one and only Santa Claus.
Lip service is paid to deeper values, mostly by Fred (he is an attorney, after all):
It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.
But if you really listen to what Fred says, it's vague enough to be open to interpretation. Worse yet is the implication that belief in supernatural forces is required to experience awe, joy, or love.
Look Doris, someday you're going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.
The fuzzy meaning of all Fred's flowery talk is, in the end, overshadowed by another message, one of self-absorbed materialism. Even after Doris is converted to a happier woman and in love with good ol' Fred, and Kris Kringle wins his freedom, Susan remains doubtful and depressed all the way up until when Kris Kringle gives her a house. (Technically Doris and Fred have to buy it. But Kris magically made Susan's dream house appear for sale at just the right time and place.) Not only is faith necessary to experience love, but to keep children happy, we must buy the stuff on their wish lists.
If all that wasn't enough, the film even justifies violence. Kris Kringle is on trial because he believes he's Santa Claus, right? Well, that and the fact that he thumped a psychologist, Granville Sawyer, on the head with his cane. Thumped him so hard that Sawyer is left with a goose egg so large he can't wear his hat. What did Sawyer do to deserve it? Kick a puppy? Smack a baby? No. He mis-diagnosed and mis-advised another character who had come to him for help. Apparently if you're righteous enough, you can skip diplomacy and appeals to proper authorities, and go right to smacking naughty people around.
Miracle on 34th Street is a product of a culture that champions faith, and regards doubt with contempt. A world where discreet forces of good and evil exist, and where virtue will be cosmically rewarded, while sin is punished. It achieves this by pulling on our heartstrings, and getting us to turn our brains off. The good guys Fred and Kris are respectively handsome and adorable, and both tremendously charming. The villain Mr. Sawyer is weaselly and ugly.
Santa Claus is one of modern, American society's sacred cows. To be more specific, convincing children that Santa Claus is real is thought to be virtuous. Just as Fred expresses dismay toward Doris for denying Susan fairy tales, real people express dismay when other adults refuse to play along with the Santa myth. As a school teacher, I knew to keep my mouth shut around the kids, and say, "Ask your parents."
Some people in my life have expressed concern that being denied Santa realness, my kids are missing out on an important part of their development. I'd love to know what we're preparing kids for when we knowingly blur the lines between reality and fantasy. To pray, instead of going out and doing something? To be complacent in the face of injustice in hopes of pie in the sky when we die?
It's offensive to accuse adults of lying to children about Santa. But what else do you call it when one person tells another person something they know to be false? A common defense is to insist that Santa is something figurative (read Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus), and then ignore that the kids are taking us literally.
And kids are taking us literally. Five year olds aren't musing over the warm, fuzzy feelings they associate with the jolly fiction of Santa Claus. They imagine a chuckling fat man in a factory full of elves.
Another argument is that it's not lying because young kids don't distinguish between fantasy and reality. Based on current understanding of children's cognitive development, that's wrong. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik said in an interview for Seed magazine:
Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn't tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.
In episode 188: Kid Logic of This American Life, Gopnik mentions a specific experiment done by colleague Paul Harris. Harris had children imagine either puppies or monsters inside a box, and then observed the children's reactions to the box when left alone. Even though the children all agreed the box was really empty, up until the age of 6 or 7, the children who imagined a puppy tended to peek inside the box, while the ones who imagined a monster tended to move away from it. In his article Monsters, ghosts and witches: Testing the limits of the fantasy/reality distinction in young children, Harris concluded that,
Although young children are able to distinguish fantasy from reality, they do not necessarily understand that a fantastic entity cannot transform into a real one.
I suspect Lysi (my older daughter) sometimes wonders if Santa is real. She's still the age where, according to Harris's experiment, she doesn't understand that the fantastic cannot become real. When we talk about Santa, I don't lie. I tell her he's a lovable character like Dora.
Kids make their own magic. They don't need our help indulging in fantasy. They do need to know that they can trust us.
Anyway, why this need to believe fictional characters are real to be enthralled and in awe by them? My kids enjoy Santa in the same way they enjoy Elmo. Lysi knows Elmo is a puppet. In an interview with Rove McManus, Kevin Clash (the puppeteer of Elmo) said that children who come on the Sesame Street set,
...normally don't look at me. They just look at me like someone whose carrying around their favorite friend. Especially with kids, they keep their imaginations.
The magic isn't that the kids believe the puppets are alive. They know it's a show, but it's such a high caliber performance that suspension of disbelief is easy and natural.
We don't need to have faith to experience love and awe. We simply need to be human.
In the final scene of Miracle on 34th Street, we discover that Fred and Doris didn't have full faith in Kris after all. Upon seeing Kris's cane in the corner of the house, Fred and Doris fall silent, their expressions deadly serious. In a sober tone of voice, Fred remarks (referring to his victory at trial), "Maybe I didn't do such a great thing after all." The implication is that Kris never needed saving because he truly is a supernatural being.
"Lovely intangibles" aside, in the end, what is most titillating about the film is the idea that Kris Kringle, a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood person, is the real Santa Claus, imbued with real magical powers. Fred's virtue by itself isn't enough. Virtue is instead a means of getting mystical forces on our side so they'll step in and help us. To put it another way, be good and you'll get to heaven (or at least fall in love and get a pretty, little house in the burbs.) Ah, yes, viewers' escape from reality is complete.
My dirty little secret is that I love the film Miracle On 34th Street. I get a jolt of satisfaction when Kris Kringle thumps that weasel Sawyer. I'm swept away by Fred's good looks and charm, impressed by Doris's poise, and amused by Susan's deadpan delivery set against Kris Kringle's boyish charm. I feel a little thrill every time those giant sacks of letters to Santa from the USPS are poured over the cranky judge's bench. As I write this, exhausted after a long day of work and watching after the kids, all I want to do is put on a Snuggie and curl up on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa and watch this film. Cinematic candy, yum!
But hey, at least I don't fool myself into thinking the message of Miracle on 34th Street is anything other than feel-good bullshit.
And I don't tell my kids that Santa is real.