On the Existence of Santa Claus and Miracle on 34th Street

by Roy M. Barineau, Ph. D. on December 12, 2016

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

On the Existence of Santa Claus and Miracle on 34th Street

My favorite Christmas movie is George Seaton and Valentine Davies’ Mircale on 34th Street (1947), and watching the movie has become a part of my Christmas tradition.  I like the movie because it teaches modern viewers about values and truths in mythology.

The story of Santa Claus is a modern myth. Santa Claus lives in the North Pole, and during the wee hours of Christmas morn, he delivers gifts to children who have been good during the previous year. He has a long and heavy, white beard. He has a large belly. He wears a red suit, complete with cap, that is trimmed in fur, and his ensemble is completed with black, leather boots and a wide, black belt. He keeps track of children’s deeds (whether they have been naughty or nice) and bestows wonderful presents of all kinds to the well-behaved children of the world. In this endeavor Santa Claus is assisted by a large crew of elves, who make toys in a workshop at the North Pole, and a fleet of flying reindeer who carry Santa’s sleigh, with a large bag of toys, from home to home. Santa’s favorite entry into homes is a chimney, but the absence of such will not prevent him from carrying out his task. When he leaves each house, he is apt to explode with this jolly expression: “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good night!”

Most of this is well reflected in John Coots and Haven Gillespie’s tune, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1934). The singer reports that he visited the North Pole and called on Santa Claus who took him to his workshop and told him of his task. The singer, then, warns,

You better watch out, you better not cry.
Better not pout, I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
He’s making a list and checking it twice.
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
He sees you when you’re sleepin’.
He knows when you’re a wake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!
Oh! You better watch out, you better not cry.
Better not pout, I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
With little tin horns and little toy drums.
Rooty toot toots and rummy tum tums.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
And curly head dolls that toddle and coo.
Elephants, boats, and kiddie cars too.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
Then kids in Girl and Boy land will have a jubilee.
They’re gonna build a Toyland all around the Christmas tree.
So! You better watch out, you better not cry.
Better not pout, I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town….

In Miracle on 34th Street Doris Walker’s fault is that she does not recognize the value and truth of mythology. Instead, she finds myths unrealistic, deceitful, and harmful.  Doris Walker is an employee at Macy’s Department store.  She is also a slightly disillusioned, divorced mother; her daughter’s name is Susan or Suzie.  Fred Gailey, an attorney, is trying to court Doris and baby sits Suzie.  When Fred Gailey clarifies with Doris that Suzie is to be kept away from all fantasies, Doris responds, “That’s right. We should be realistic and completely truthful with our children and not have them growing up believing in a lot of legends and myths, like Santa Claus, for example.” Later, after Gailey and Suzie stop off so that Suzie may visit Santa in Macy’s Department Store, Gailey defends the visit to Doris by saying that he did not see the harm. Doris responds, “But I think there is harm. I tell her Santa Claus is a myth. You bring her here, and she sees hundreds of gullible children — meets a very convincing old man with real whiskers. This sets up a very harmful mental conflict within her. What is she going to think? Who is she going to believe? And by filling them full of fairy tales they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of a reality….” Doris Walker has no respect or appreciation for mythology.

Gailey, on the other hand, does recognize the value and truth of myths. When Kris Kringle, the Santa of Macy’s Department Store, insists the he is indeed Santa Claus, Gailey comes to his defense. In Kris’ mental competency hearing, Gailey tells Doris, “It’s not just Kris that’s on trial. It’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness, joy, love, and all other intangibles.” Doris responds, “Fred, you’re talking like a child. You’re living in a realistic world! Those lovely intangibles aren’t worth much….” Gailey retorts, “Someday, you’re going to find out 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 they’re the only things that are worthwhile.” Gailey finds meaning and worth in the imaginative realm of mythology.

Mythology has been one of the primary means of communication in the religions of the world. The word “myth” derives from the Greek word mythos which simply refers to a “story,” a narrative of events in a sequential arrangement. In the academic study of humanities, however, the term myth has acquired a more definitive meaning.

Firstly, myths are ahistorical (“non-historical”). Myths, that is, generally relate action and characters that take audiences outside the normal bounds of tangible history. Myths deal with extraordinary time rather than ordinary time. They deal with events, places, and characters that are pre-history, post-history, supra-history or even sub-history (events, places and characters prior to history, after history, above history or even below history). The kind of time conveyed in myth is the time of an alternate reality, a time that is beyond the reach of normal description, beyond the reach of ordinary means of historical verification, beyond the reach of eyewitnesses. It is a time that is inaccessible except through means of speculation, imagination or revelation.

In the case of the Santa Claus mythology, we are dealing with supra-history. While the rest of humanity tends to day-to-day chores throughout the year, Santa is busy in the North Pole preparing toys for every girl and boy, all for the sake of one day a year.  The myth presents a character who descends from above to achieve the unhurried visitation of every home in the world, all in the course of what in ordinary time is only a few hours but what in mythological time appears more than ample.

Secondly, myths typically contain a bizarre element. Myths, that is, relate fantastic, extraordinary, astonishing, or fabulous phenomena that stretch the boundaries of credulity and are difficult to reconcile with a more modern, rationalistic, and scientific view of the world. Myths deal with kinds of events that are not a part of common everyday reality, kinds of events that could only happen in an alternate reality.

These bizarre elements in the Santa Claus myth stand out immediately.  Santa lives in the North Pole with flying reindeer and elves who make toys for children all over the world.  He sleds his way in a few hours to visit every home in the world.  He keeps a record of all the deeds of all the children in the world.  He fits down slender chimneys despite his portly nature, and he consumes an enormous amount of cookies and milk as he goes from house to house.

Thirdly, myths deal with exemplary time, space and characters. The times, places and characters of myths very often serve as examples for how human life should or should not be lived, how the world should or should not be ordered.  Myths deal with events, places, and characters that become models or set patterns, both positive and negative, for comprehending or structuring the world.

In the case of Santa, we have a good and kindly man who rewards children if they are also nice and well-behaved.  We have a moral conscious that compels us to consider our intentions and actions in light of the consequences.  We have the hope of reward if we follow the path of righteousness.

Lastly, but most perhaps most importantly, myths intend to convey important truths. Although in everyday conversation the term “myth” may carry the connotation of falsehood, understand that in the academic study of the humanities the focus is not on the ways in which a myth may be untrue, but rather upon the ways in which a myth would have been perceived as valid. In other words, for the academic study of humanities the word ‘myth” should be defined as “a story that intends to convey profound truths,” not as “a story that is untrue.”  Because of their intended truths, myths can still be very powerful influences even in the modern world (e.g., the Shinto mythology that supported Japanese militarism during World War II).

There are many kinds of myths with many different messages, and myths may or may not be considered true. But the validity of a myth should be determined only after one has discovered the truth that the myth intends to relate. If a myth is religious in nature, it is misguided to criticize it for not being scientifically true. To criticize a religious myth for not being scientifically true is like criticizing an apple for not being an orange. Of course, the apple is not an orange, but then the apple never claimed to be an orange. Or, if the myth is ancient, it is a bit silly to criticize it for not being modern. To criticize an ancient story for not being modern is like criticizing chariots of the first century for not being automobiles of the twentieth century. Of course, the chariot cannot go as fast as the automobile, but then the chariot never claimed it could. In the study of humanities we look for the truths that myths intend to convey more than for the “falsehoods” that they may presuppose.

So, what are the truths of the Santa Claus mythology? To repeat the words of Fred Gailey, “It’s not just Kris that’s on trial. It’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness, joy, love, and all other intangibles.” Mythologically, to proclaim the existence of Santa Claus is not to affirm the existence of a man who lives in the north pole with elves and flying reindeer, a man who visits every home in the world during a few hours of the night before Christmas morning, a man who records the deeds of every little boy and girl. Rather, to embrace the reality of Santa Claus is to affirm the existence of goodness, delight, love, and a moral consciousness that is shared and supported by humankind. To insist on the existence of Santa Claus is to stand with Francis Church, in his response to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s inquiry, as published in the New York Sun (September 21, 1897), “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. 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. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus…. Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see…. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”

In Miracle on 34th Street, those of us who recognize the value and truths of myths can experience joy when Mr. Macy, of Macy’s Department Store, affirms the existence of Santa Claus and identifies his own Kris Kringle as Santa Claus. Mr. Macy may be concerned about the reputation of himself and his business, but he is compliant nevertheless.

We can wallow in delight when Fred Gailey calls little Tommy Mara to the stand as a witness against his own father, big Thomas Mara, who is functioning as the district attorney. Little Tommy is sworn in and says, “Everybody knows you shouldn’t tell a lie, especially in court.” Gailey asks, “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” Little Tommy responds, “Sure I do. He gave me a brand-new flexible flyer sled last year.” Gailey inquires, “And what does he look like?” Little Tommy says, “There he is, sitting there [pointing as Macy’s Kris Kringle].” At this point, big Thomas protests, but he is overruled. Gailey continues, “Tell me, Tommy, why are you so sure there’s a Santa Claus?” With delightful innocence, Tommy declares, “Because my daddy told me so. Didn’t you, Daddy?” Gailey, follows up, “And you believe your daddy, don’t you? He’s a very honest man.” Tommy insists, “Of course he is. My daddy wouldn’t tell me anything that wasn’t so. Would you, Daddy?”

Further, we can come to tears when the skeptical materialist, Doris Walker, appends little Suzie’s note to Santa with her own note, “I believe in you, too.”  Suzie had told her, “But he’s so kind and nice and jolly….  He must be Santa.”  Doris confesses, “I think perhaps you’re right, Suzie.”  Even the practical realist now wants to believe.

Finally, we can exult with Fred Gailey when the United States Post Office delivers bags and bags full of letters, addressed to Santa, to Kris Kringle in the courtroom, thereby verifying the existence of Santa Claus and the identity of Kris Kringle as Santa Claus. Yes, as Suzie proclaims when Santa comes through with a house and a father for her, “Kris Kringle, you are Santa Claus!”  Indeed, in so far as we embrace the mythology, we are all Santa Claus!

As a scholar of religion, I have studied a plethora of myths from many different cultures in most every period of human history and most every place of human occupation. I have developed my own mythology of sorts, a religious philosophy of golf that uses the language of golf to reveal that which is far more ultimate in meaning. My website, Roybob’s Funny Golf Books, is dedicated, in part, to exploring golf as religion. I will tell you that I believe in Santa Claus. I will leave cookies and milk out for him to enjoy on Christmas Eve, and in leaving these goodies for Santa I affirm, with a host of others, my belief in the values and truths that Santa Claus represents.

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ursula Morgan December 14, 2016 at 10:55 am

well worth the long read. Thank you for sharing your perspective of all that Santa stands for. When I became an American citizen, my 3 year old Monica was very concerned that the German Santa might not come by our house anymore on December 6.

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Roy M. Barineau, Ph. D. December 15, 2016 at 9:21 am

Thanks Ursula! I bet you assured Monica that Santa would come.

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