Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Miracle on 34th Street

It’s that time of the year. The Christmas season is upon us. And, if you are like me, one of my favorite activities during the holidays is sitting down and watching a Christmas movie. Nowadays, there’s no shortage of new Christmas flicks. It seems like every day the Hallmark Channel or the ABC Family has a new original debut Christmas movie that’s deemed to be a ”new classic”. But most of these films are sort of like junk food or empty calories. There’s nothing really new or original about them. The same ol candy canes, reindeer, Santa Clause on vacation, and other lame plots.

I like the classics. Perhaps, the best Christmas movie of all time is the original version of Miracle on 34th Street, which was released in 1947. I’ve probably seen it at least 40 times. It never gets old. It’s an astonishing film, not just because it’s a Christmas movie, but because it’s exceptionally well made and stands on its own two feet as an authentic film. Sometimes we forget that Miracle on 34th Street has won three academy awards and was nominated for Best Picture. Here’s one thing you probably don’t know. The studio was so confident of the success of the movie that they released it in May 1947 because more people go to the movies during the summer. Today can you imagine a studio releasing a Christmas movie in the summer? It wouldn’t happen.

Yes, Miracle on 34th Street has exceptional acting, great charm and atmosphere, a beautiful story, and timeless themes. But after seeing this film so many times, and I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot, is there something we have missed? It would be easy to dismiss this film as just cute or as another family-friendly, cookie-cutter Christmas story.

Let’s take a closer look and see what this movie is really about. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris Walker, a divorced mother who is raising her daughter to believe in a world governed by logic and reason. Fairy tales and Christmas have no place in this modern interpretation of the world they live in. Doris is a young, mobile executive working at Macy’s, the largest retailer in New York City, who is determined to get ahead in life.

Doris also organized the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving parade where the Santa Claus she has hired becomes intoxicated on the day of the big parade. Enter in Kris Kringle (Edward Gwenn), who discovers the drunken Santa. Doris convinces Kris to take on the role of Santa and save the day. The only problem is Kris Kringle believes he is the real Santa Clause.

Back at her apartment, Doris discovers her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) has taken a liking to her next door neighbor Fred (John Payne), who is a young, idealist up and coming lawyer. He teaches Susan a very different way about how to view the world, one where anything is possible, including giants, fairy tales and even Christmas. This sets up the central conflict which drives the main theme of the film. Eventually, Kris Kringle goes to work for Macy’s. Through a series of events, Kris is put on trial for his mental stability, which could land him as a permanent resident in a mental institution. Fred takes on the case and is determined to prove that Kris Kringle is the one and only Santa Clause.

At this point in the story, Doris and Fred have developed a friendship which could lead to something more. However, Doris sees Fred’s decision to take on this case as foolish, which could potentially destroy his legal career. There you have it—a discussion of two vastly different world views disguised as a Christmas movie.

The issue is faith, believing in the things we cannot see when logic tells us it’s not possible. On the other hand, we have common sense, logic and reason—the things we can feel, touch, and smell. It’s the same thing we struggle with in our daily lives. How do we believe in a God that we cannot see or feel? We know faith is a central part of the Christian message. But to embrace it means that our common sense, logic and reason will not help us make that leap of faith which is necessary to please God. Although, Miracle on 34th Street never directly mentions God, it’s pretty clear that Kris Kringle is a metaphor for our ability to believe in the things we cannot see, such as our faith in Christ. Which road will we ultimately choose and embrace?

It’s rare for any film from 1947 to express such dark themes as Doris’ view of the world. Her world has been ripped apart. She can’t believe in anything apart from reason and logic. It’s really all she has. Can Doris find redemption and the ability to believe in something greater than just the stability of a good job? Maybe, as you watch this film, you will see that the themes are a little more complex than you originally thought. I can’t think of anything that’s more challenging for any of us to deal with. How do we handle belief and faith and our natural tendency to relay on logic and reason?

Here’s something else to think about during this Christmas season. If you call yourself a Christian, then that means you believe that God himself, born of a virgin birth, came to this world in the flesh. Think about it. That’s an incredible statement. You ask me, that takes a lot of faith and belief. As far as I know there’s no video on You Tube to prove it. But we still believe it. Right? How is it then that we can believe this, but the way we live our lives is through logic, reason and common sense? Now, does that make any sense?

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