Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Faith, reason and Santa Claus

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published November 26, 2020

In a year that has defied all expectations in all manner of ways, it is somehow fitting that this year’s beloved Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be, well . . . different.

There will be a parade! There just won’t be any people. It won’t be the same route. It’s television only. There won’t be any participants under the age of 18. No children at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade; it’s hard to believe. It’s as disappointing as the colorization of the 1947 classic film “Miracle on 34th Street.”

I suppose we will still watch the parade; it is, after all, a tradition engrained in most Americans’ observance of the Thanksgiving Holiday. But it won’t be the same.

Yet George Seaton’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” for which the director also won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, will play at our house like it always does: unchanged, with an ageless Maureen O’Hara, a forever-young Natalie Wood and the remarkable Edmund Gwenn as beautiful as ever, all in glorious black and white the way the filmmaker intended.

“Miracle on 34th Street” is one of my favorite Christmas movies, and I watch it every year. I’ve always liked the fact that while the movie was shot on location in New York City, and the parade scenes were all done in one take at the actual 1946 event, the movie had its premiere in June because 20th Century Fox was convinced that more people went to the movies in the summer than in the winter.

The movie will be especially appropriate this year because the film begins at a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that is also different. This parade is unusual in that for the grand finale, the fake Santa Claus is too intoxicated to make an appropriate appearance. He must be replaced, and fast. Maureen O’Hara, who plays Doris—the coordinator of the parade—lucks out. She finds a man who resembles Santa Claus, who’s willing to take the job. His name is Kris Kringle. Yes, that Kris Kringle. Suffice it to say that Kris does a fine job; he does such a good job that he is quickly installed in the Macy’s Christmas bustle and in a short time creates a marketing and publicity frenzy between the competing department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s.

Kris is intriguing in other ways, too. He speaks multiple languages. He heals divisions among rivals. He fosters kindness and empathy. He also compels everyone he meets to decide whether or not they believe him to be Santa Claus, who he repeatedly insists that he is. Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Kris Kringle; O’Hara even said that “Halfway through the shoot, we all believed Edmund Gwenn really was Santa.”

Belief. That is the crux of the entire film. How do we support what we profess to believe? Do we look for signs, for evidence, for visible proof? Or do we believe simply through faith?

Affirming the real things

While the film does convince us to have a little faith, the plot turns primarily upon a legal argument, or proof. Attorney Fred Gailey, played by John Payne, who believes that Kris is really Santa Claus, goes to court on Kris’ behalf. Fred’s argument hinges upon the United States Post Office. Fred reasons that because the Post Office is a U.S. government institution, if children send letters to Santa through the mail, it proves that Santa Claus must be real, for no government institution would be involved in deceiving the public. This is all wonderfully appropriate for 2020! In the end, the court rules for Kris Kringle, largely because it fears losing the good will of the people. And Susan, Doris’ daughter, finally comes to believe that Kris truly is who he claims to be.

The movie always reminds me of the story of Virginia O’Hanlon, the little Irish Catholic girl whose father convinced her to write to the New York Sun newspaper to enquire about the reality of Santa Claus. Her father, an assistant coroner, told her that “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” In 1897, Virginia wrote a short letter to the paper, and sure enough, she was assured that “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Bob Mathewson visits a classroom as Santa Claus at St. Ambrose of Woodbury’s Early Childhood Education Center in Minnesota in December 2019. He has more than two decades of experience portraying the jolly gift giver.

There is more to the story, however. The paper’s response to Virginia has become the most reprinted news editorial in the English language. In a short, yet eloquent, reply that has been syndicated thousands of times, the paper affirmed for Virginia, and all of us, that “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor [adults] can see.”

The Sun argued that Virginia’s doubting young friends had “been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.”

If you’ve never read the full response to Virginia, I urge you to do so. It has been memorialized in all manner of adaptations, advertising campaigns, annual celebrations and commemorations, and Christmas traditions across the country. Here is the heart of the text:

“He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. … There is a veil covering the unseen world … only faith, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”

The piece, though unsigned, is generally attributed to editorial writer Francis Church, a Civil War correspondent about whom all sorts of conjectures have been made. No matter who Church really was or what he really believed; he channels here one of the primary messages of St. Paul, that there is a presence in absence, that the things unseen are eternal, that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall know even as we are known.”

St. Paul affirms, as does the Sun’s response to Virginia, that faith, hope, and love are real and lasting. St. Thomas Aquinas assures us that while reason and logic are pathways to God, so too is faith. And attorney John Gailey, in “Miracle on 34th Street,” puts it nicely when he says that “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial—it’s kindness, and joy, and love and all the other intangibles.”

This Thanksgiving comes near the end of an odd and often miserable year. Yet it comes as well just days before Advent, the season of anticipation and joyful hope for redemption. As you celebrate Thanksgiving, however you observe it this bizarre year, and as you look forward to the promise of Christmas, I wish you all the best for the better times to come.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.