We need to talk about Santa.
When my son Ben was three, his questions were all about the logistics of Santa and his life: How will he eat the cookies we leave for him? What does the North Pole look like? How big is his sled? Does he jump or slide down the chimney? Do the reindeer bring his sleigh down to him? Does it go beep when it’s time for him to go?
And I answered his questions according to the information I’ve gathered during forty years of exposure to the myth of Santa Claus.
Last year, when Ben asked me simply if Santa Claus is real, I found myself unable to tell him truthfully what I believe. So I punted: “Santa is real to children who believe in him.”
But now Ben is a mature five and a half (“Five and three quarters!” he would correct me), his questions are more complicated, and he’s not put off so easily. “Do you talk to Santa? How does he know what I want? What’s the difference between you and Santa?”
It’s not that I object so strongly to the Santa story; the Christian Christmas story I believe in is, arguably, just as fantastic (though admittedly less commercial). And it’s not even that I don’t want to lie to my kid, because honestly sometimes it takes quite a few half-truths and white lies just to get through the day. But it’s a sad day when a person discovers that Santa isn’t real, and I want to protect him from that as deeply, and as fruitlessly, as I want to protect him from getting his heart broken when he’s seventeen. I want him to partake fully in the magic of the season, the magic of childhood, and that includes Santa.
So I pulled out Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947) to see if Natalie Wood and company could help us through this year’s encounter with Santa.
The film tells the story of Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), a worldly and guarded second grader who lives with her divorced mother (Maureen O’Hara) in a Manhattan apartment. Having been burned once herself by believing in Prince Charming and happily ever after, Doris Walker doesn’t read her daughter fairy tales or tell her fantasy stories; “I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children,” she explains, “and not have them growing up with a lot of legends and myths, like Santa Claus for example.” But her determination to raise a purely pragmatic child is tested when the man she hires to play Santa for Macy’s claims to be Kris Kringle.
Kris, in turn, decides to make the cynical Walkers a test case: “For the past fifty years or so I’ve been getting more and more worried about Christmas,” he tells Doris. “Seems we’re all so busy, and trying to beat the other fellow and trying to make things go faster and look shinier and cost less. Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle. Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind, and that’s what’s been changing. If I can win you over, there’s still hope!”
Miracle on 34th Street is a gentle battle of wills between Kris Kringle and Doris, a romance between Doris and her handsome, wholesome neighbor, a courtroom drama (when Kris is put on trial to determine if he’s really Santa), and a pointed critique of the trappings of modern life, from rampant consumerism to frivolous lawsuits to psychiatry. So it’s not really a kid’s movie, but I watched it regularly when I was eight and nine, mesmerized by little Susan Walker and her scowling face. I lived close enough to Manhattan that sophisticated little girls like Susan weren’t totally foreign to me; seeing them, when I traveled into the city for museum field trips with my dad or symphony rehearsals with my mom, was like observing the chimps at the zoo: so like me, and yet so profoundly different. I loved watching Kris give Susan, who claims that imagination is just “when you see things and they’re not really there,” her “first lesson in pretending:” they bend over, arms hanging loosely at their sides, jut out their bottom lips and shriek like monkeys. Susan continues to practice, quietly, hours later in her bed. Bit by bit, she comes to believe that this kindly old gentleman is magic.
Watching it now, I found — unsurprisingly — that my interest had shifted from the daughter to the mother. Doris Walker is not a particularly appealing character; a busy career woman, she’s buttoned into dark suits, her hair pulled severely back. She’s a little too formal with her daughter and a little too bossy with everyone else she encounters. But I sympathized with this working mother. In a time when women were being shunted back out of the workforce that they’d been begged to join during the war, she’s working hard to maintain a place for herself in the corporate world. With Kris Kringle embodying childlike innocence and her male co-workers voicing the caustic cynicism of commercial culture, she’s left uncomfortably straddling the two worlds. Until she makes a choice. She’s not too preoccupied by her job to notice that her daughter is melting a bit under Kris Kringle’s kind attention, and she lets herself soften, too, just enough to add a postscript to her daughter’s letter to Santa: “I believe in you, too.”
Ultimately, the film hinges on letters to Santa, those innocent expressions of faith written annually by thousands of children and mailed off with such hope. In the climactic scene, bags and bags of letters are delivered to Kris in the courtroom, and the judge has to concede that it’s hard to argue when even the United States Postal Service acknowledges the accused as Santa Claus.
I didn’t expect Ben to last much past the film’s opening scene of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but we cuddled up close to watch Miracle on 34th Street. Indeed, after half an hour or so, when he saw the question the movie was posing, he hopped off the couch. “I need to stop watching this movie now,” he said. “I need to write a letter to Santa.” So he sat down and wrote, “I would like a pogo stick, please.” We walked off to the post office together to mail his letter. And I’ve gained another year of magic.