Last night I flipped on Turner Classic Movies for a half hour after returning from participating in a revered Christmas Eve and Christmas tradition among American Jews—having Chinese food with family and friends. I caught the last 20 minutes of the original (and thankfully uncolorized) 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street, in which a trial is held to determine whether a Macy’s Santa Claus is the real thing.
A lot happens in the last 20 minutes of the movie: the case is heard; the judge declares that the jolly and benevolent old man is the real Santa Claus; Santa’s lawyer, played by the forgettable John Payne, gets together with his love interest, the unforgettable Maureen O’Hara; and Maureen’s daughter, played by a 9-year-old Natalie Wood, gets her Christmas wish.
In those 20 minutes the writer and director made a number of decisions on details to move the plot along that also subtly advocate three of the most important ideological principles of the time. What’s so striking is that one of these principles has in subsequent years been turned on its ear, while the other two persist and have become even more central to mass entertainment and the mainstream news media.
Let’s start with the big ideological reversal which resides in the reason that the judge declares the old man to be the real Santa Claus. It’s because the U.S. Post Office decides to send to him all the mail it has been holding for Santa Claus. The lead-up to this denouement consists of a five-minute interchange between Payne, the prosecutor and the judge in which they attempt to top each other in praising the post office—it’s efficient, accurate and virtuous, just like the rest of the government.
It was 1947, and the United States had just won a war and was in an era in which government was expanding its influence in the economy and guiding a redistribution of wealth that led to the golden age of 1950-1980 in which we became a nation of primarily middle class and well-to-do households. People liked government and mass entertainment wanted us to like government. I imagine that if Miracle on 34th Street were remade today, the post office might still perform its role in moving the plot along, but it wouldn’t be praised to the skies. It’s also likely that the producer would put the name of the delivery service up for bid resulting in a private company like Fed Ex delivering the Santa letters in the remake; or that they might come as emails that Google sent along.
Like many holiday-themed movies and books, Miracle on 34th Street has several plot lines that twist together. One of the twists is typically the Christmas gift wish of a child. It’s a bee-bee gun in A Christmas Story. It’s a train set in the film-by-numbers A Holiday Affair star-studded with Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh and Wendell Corey (as another lawyer). The boy in Glenn Beck’s children’s book product titled A Christmas Sweater wants a bike. The plot device of focusing on a gift that is a selfish present for a child turns the spirit of Christmas into non-spiritual consumerism. For these children, the holiday reduces to getting, and getting means buying, which the movie families typically are too poor to do.
The miracle at the end (or occasionally in the middle) of the movie always involves the child getting the material possession, which means someone bought something. Christmas was the first holiday to become a commemoration of shopping and consumerism. In 1947 in Miracle on 34th Street, we see consumerism as the ideological imperative behind Christmas, and we certainly see it today. Nothing has changed.
The third ideological imperative I identified in the last part of the movies comes inside the gift that the girl wants. It’s not a bike, bee-bee gun or train set. It’s a house in the suburbs where a car is a necessity.
A house…in the suburbs…where a car is a necessity.
It’s the big American dream after World War II, subsidized by the government, recommended by the news media of the time and furnished by the real estate, car, retail and appliance manufacturing companies that dominated ad spending. Flee the diverse city for the safe and homogenized suburbs in which all social interaction revolved around cars and malls filled with national chain stores and restaurants. 1947 was near the beginning of the post-war American dream that has turned into a nightmare, especially for the environment and those dependent on dwindling natural resources, which means all of us.
Yet preferring the suburbs to cities remains one of the most important ideological tenets imbuing today’s more ubiquitous mass media, as I have discussed on numerous occasions in OpEdge.
Love or hate of government may be a matter of political fashion, but central to both the American post-War and 21st century ideologies is consumerism. That the preferred place to live, the suburbs, features consuming as its biggest virtue makes perfect sense. And it certainly makes sense that this ideology will manifest itself in the details of holiday entertainments. The Christmas entertainments more spiritual in nature, like It Happened on Fifth Avenue— also released in 1947and a delightful variation on My Man Godfrey—tend to be less popular and less replayed on television.
I would like to close with a “Merry Christmas” to all my Christian friends and readers.