Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Santa Claus and Faith

During this holiday season I once again had the chance to see the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street which tells a story about when a nice old man who claims to be Santa Claus is institutionalized as insane, a young lawyer decides to defend him by arguing in court that he is the real thing.

While a movie about Santa Claus ostensibly deals with the secular part of the Christmas holiday, I couldn’t help but find a tremendous amount of religious significance in the movie, especially the way it centered on the idea of faith. Doris, in urging her daughter Susan not to believe in things like Santa Claus tells her that “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”

Indeed this
review on by Bruce Eder offers the following insight:
…sharp-eyed observers may or may not have noticed that the film essentially retells the New Testament's story of the life of Jesus Christ. …while screenwriter Valentine Davies' original story seems, superficially, to be the height of whimsy, about Santa Claus's appearance in the midst of that realistic setting, it becomes clear on closer examination that Davies borrowed liberally from the New Testament. Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle is almost more a substitute for Jesus than a screen-bound Santa. He enters a big city with his message of generosity and foresaking commercialism; he meets some doubters and some interested onlookers, and soon they're listening to him and starting to believe in him. Then he's betrayed and put on trial, not for his life but for his identity: he must prove he is who he says he is, or be imprisoned and labeled a madman and a pretender.
Indeed Kris performs a minor ‘miracle’ that Susan witnesses in Kris being able to speak in fluent Dutch to a child brought to Macy’s who was unable to speak English. She then tries to convince her mother Doris about Santa being real:

Susan: But when he spoke Dutch to that girl...

Doris: Susan, I speak French, but that doesn't make me Joan of Arc.

And then there is this exchange:

Susan: If you're really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you can't, you're only a nice man with a white beard like mother says.

Kris: Now wait a minute, Susie. Just because every child can't get his wish that doesn't mean there isn't a Santa Claus.

This is similar to the argument that just because all prayers are not answered doesn’t mean there isn’t a God.

It can be argued that faith is something that many of us need to be able to cope with what life deals us as Judith Warner writes in her NYT article
Do You Believe?

You have, in this climate, to carve out whatever little islands of belief that you can. My 11-year-old daughter, Julia, resolutely refuses not to believe in Santa Claus. No number of mall Santas, varying in face and demeanor, no amount of presents delivered straight to the door by UPS, can shake her from her faith. This is, I suppose, her way of preserving a sense of mystery and miracle in her otherwise dessicatedly secular world, where chocolate Santas at school have gone the way of the Pledge of Allegiance. And I admire her greatly for it.
But as much as I enjoyed believing in Santa Claus as a child along with my children when they were young, I still have mixed feelings about teaching children to have faith in something like Santa Claus. Once they are old enough to not believe any more, there is always the chance that they will then cynically question the value of all faith in others perhaps including God for those who were taught the value of religious faith. But for those like former Christian evangelist and now atheist blogger Daniel Florien in his posting
Santa vs God, that would not be all bad.

But NYT reader
Elizabeth A. shares these thoughts:

As an atheist, I've always loved Christmas. But I hate arguments that I have to be religious or "have faith" to really understand what it's about.

For me, Christmas is about family, and goodwill, and a time of the year when we get together to celebrate our love for each other and all of mankind. You don't need a mythology, religion, or fictional character to make that wonder-filled.
But lest we get too jaded and cynical, I would like to close with these words from NYT reader
David Evans:

Mystery and magic cease to exist for people who are too afraid to acknowledge their own ignorance. People have a need to know, to banish fears and to pretend that they have control over their world, and what they don't truly know, they pretend to know. Why are we here? What force animates us? If you think you know, or have a ready answer that satisfies you, then you will never know mystery, and never feel the magic.

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