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He Really Is Santa Claus

 

Last night my wife Carol, my daughters Victoria, Veronica and I were watching Miracle on 34th Street and marveling anew at what a great movie it is, filled with fascinating and profound ideas. First, the film opens a window into the question of how religions begin and get off the ground. When Mrs. Walker, Mr. Shellhammer, and Kris Kringle's Doctor discuss the matter of his mental health, the doctor assures them there's nothing to worry about. "His is a delusion for good." Between them, they all assume as a matter of course that Kris is crazy. But they admit he is functional, able to live a productive life, and not just despite but actually because of his delusion. And by the time the movie is over, they have all come to believe that he really is Santa Claus after all. Is the viewer supposed to share the believe that Kris is Santa? I guess so, but technically the film ends on a question mark. The cane by the fireplace might have been left by the people who moved out. Yeah, maybe.

On the one hand, maybe we are to see that Kris's claim to be Santa has been vindicated. But another way to view it is that Gaily, Dolores, Susie, and the others have come to share Kris's delusion. He has spread his net wide enough for them, too, to become entangled in it. And they have. A Santa cult has begun. And here I think we find an important clue as to the nature of religious belief systems. A religious belief system is a narrative universe, a story, that at first exists inside the head of an individual who has somehow come to believe it and to live as if it is true. He might be able to live on the basis of those assumptions, but if he tries it in public, he will stick out like a sore thumb, as if he were the only one speaking a language, trying unsuccessfully to communicate with people around him.

That's the way religions begin, but as long as the individual prophet is the only one to believe as he does, we call him insane. We say he has a delusion, because he is the only one navigating by this compass, on these particular seas. Like Kris Kringle, he is delusional. But then a few people begin to see that it is a delusion for good. Because Kris Kringle believes what he does, though factually he is mistaken, it is a fruitful mistake. He manages to get Macy's and Gimble's to shake hands and adopt a policy of putting the customer first. Good comes of the delusion, so other begin to adopt it. And after a while, when enough people believe it, we no longer call it a delusion. We call it a religion.

Religions are constituted by sets of attractive but erroneous beliefs, such as the power of prayer, the richness of a cozy universe owned and operated by a God who has your personal welfare at heart. These false beliefs have good effects for people who believe in them. And we feel we have to respect a religion, unlike a delusion of the insane, which we feel entitled to laugh at.

The movie also gives us a keen insight into the process whereby individuals become converted to belief, to share the benevolent delusion. What is the bridge over which Dolores, Susie, and Paul Gaily pass into belief in Santa, and that their friend Kris is Santa? They have first cultivated a series of relationships with him, and then a crisis tests their loyalty to him. His belief in his own Santaship is so central to his being that one cannot remain on his side without coming to share his belief.

We say "we believe in" someone when we have come to trust him, to count on him. It seldom comes to the point of having to affirm all that the person believes. But in Kris Kringle's case there was nothing left over. There was no way to ignore or to steer around his central belief. Mrs. Walker, Dolores, discovers that as long as she says she loves the old man but agrees with his enemies that he is not Santa as he believes himself to be, she is their ally, not his. Kris's friends can only act on his behalf when they decide to commit themselves to his belief. To defend Kris, they must defend the belief that there is a Santa, and that he is Santa. And they discover that in order to defend the belief that he is Santa, they must embrace that belief themselves.

You will convert to a religion when you discover you cannot continue in your friendship or your relationship of love or trust unless you sign on for the other personís belief. It doesn't have to be the prophet, the founder. It need only be a believer, a follower. People are not just brains. They do not just think their way to their beliefs--even though they should!

People who need people join religions filled with the people they need. The beliefs are something they inherit. A person falls in love with a member of a different religion and, not surprisingly, switches to that religion. A person needs companionship, peer acceptance, and a group of religious people offer it to him. The belief follows in due course. If a religious recruiter can get you to do things with his group, to play games with them, sing their songs, you are in Rome doing as the Romans do. It will not be long before you become a Roman. And all this reflects the fact, and indeed is the same fact, as that in the history of religion, ritual precedes myth. People do things before they know why. They may want to know why, and someone will explain it theologically, tell them a myth to rationalize it. But belief follows behavior.

But the most important lesson the film teaches is about faith. "Faith," we are told twice, "is believing when common sense tells you not to." I remember when I first watched this film, years ago, with a couple of skeptical pals. When we got to this line, we all exploded with laughter. Precisely what sort of belief is being mandated here? Belief in what sort of thing?

The first time we hear the maxim "faith is believing when common sense tells you not to," it is Gaily telling Dolores to believe in him even though he has just quit his job at a high-paying law firm to defend Kris Kringle. She is so blinded by practical concerns that she cannot see that any sacrifice such as he has made can be worth it. Too pragmatic to throw everything away for the sake of "intangibles" like love, hope, compassion. And yet she believes in these things, too. She has just been disappointed in love and is afraid to trust, afraid to hope, again. And her daughter, hearing Doris urge her to believe even when common sense tells her not to, says, "In other words, 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.'"

The kind of faith we are being told to embrace, and told convincingly, is really hope, hope and the willingness to take the risk of commitment. Doris's problem, and Susie's, is that they have a low threshold for the pain of disappointment. They don't think they can afford to make the jump and fall short of the farther ledge again. So they have decided to shrink their worlds to small confines where they will not need to jump anywhere, because there will be no place else to go. Nothing to achieve that one cannot inch one's way to safely and predictably, without risk. No stretch to make, no wings to spread. But such a world will prove too confining, so confining in fact that you will begin to shrink to fit it. You will become a pessimist.

But the pessimist is not a realist. The pessimist is the one who cannot see a good thing when it comes along because he has lost the ability to recognize it. It will be invisible to him. This is why the pessimist thinks the optimist is a dreamer, hallucinating, seeing false hopes and pipe dreams that are not there. But they are!

It's not that the pessimist, the so-called pragmatist, doesn't want good things to happen. He just no longer thinks they can. He remembers hoping for good things, but he has been disappointed, and it hurt, maybe more than once or a few times, and he dares not take the risk again.

This is easy to empathize with; we've all felt that way whether acutely or chronically. But on another level it's hard to understand. Because if you have become like Doris Walker, you are living in a constant slough of despond. You are already as about as disappointed as you can get. But by this time if something really dramatic were to happen it would at least add a thrill to life. It's like the joke where you are so far down you have to reach up to touch your toes.

Hope has become like Santa Claus--it has been a long time since you could believe in it, that the future would arrive with some gift you asked it for. But why not believe in the future again? Why not believe in possibility again? It is as simple as this: if Santa comes along with that gift, if the future appears, and you have your eyes clenched shut in the assurance that the future will not come, you will not see it. If on the other hand, your eyes are open, the future may not come, like Godot, but then again it may. And you will miss it. It will have come and gone without your knowing, and you will be without hope once again, only it will be your fault. You will be afraid to face the future, afraid to hope. But don't cringe! Fight! Elsewhere in the movie Santa says, "We may not win, but we can go down swinging!"

 

Robert M. Price

 


 

 

 

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