Christmas Spirit and Ecclesia: What Christmas Movies Can Teach Us about the Church
We all need to have faith in something that gives us worth and to which we can give our lives. For some Americans, that faith is given largely to our nation; for some it is largely lodged in science and technology; to some it is in our economic structures; to some it is in consumerism. The faith and belief we're going to find in these Christmas movies is not explicitly Christian, but it does show us countercultural generosity, the power of radical belief, and the way community or fellowship can form around that belief. Through these secular vehicles we can certainly hear the prophetic voices that Tillich talked about.
A Miracle on 34th Street contains a number of these elements; where there are miracles, we said, there must be God nearby, so who could blame people for confusing the Christmas message with this Christmas story? As in many Christmas stories (from Scrooge's on forward) A Miracle on 34th Street contrasts the way we live and think in our everyday lives with what is possible at Christmas time, and almost always the everyday comes up wanting.
Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) works as a Santa at Macy's Department Store, and he's very good at what he does. He should be: he says he's the real deal. Not everybody thinks this is possible. As is often true in Christmas films, the vast majority of people can't believe in the possibility of Christmas magic. When Kris Kringle gets locked away as insane and brought up for a hearing, a young attorney, Fred Gailey (John Payne), decides to defend him. "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to," he says. "Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles."
Belief in Santa, that is, is a step toward belief in other intangibles. And a failure to believe—well that's a slippery slope.
That's important to Fred because he is gaga for Doris Walker (Maureen O'Sullivan), who has a little girl, Susan (Natalie Wood), and Doris has raised Susan not to believe in frivolous things like Santa Claus. So the element of redemption in the film, the miracle on 34th Street, if you will, is restoring a child's childlike faith. Susan comes around—"I believe . . . I believe . . . Even though it's silly, I believe"—and ultimately, so does Doris: "I was wrong when I told you that, Susie. You must believe in Mr. Kringle and keep right on doing it. You must have faith in him."
All is well, of course. Belief is restored, Kris Kringle wins his court case, and maybe, just maybe, he was the real Santa after all. To believe in Santa is to believe in the Christmas spirit—giving, celebration, and love—but it is also to have a willingness to accept things you can't see, things that don't make logical sense in the everyday, things that call us to more and better. And that's a faith story that should be familiar to us by now.
Other movies rotate around this question of belief in Santa as well. The Polar Express centers around a young boy's loss of belief and his trip to the North Pole on a magical train (which to me would be pretty good proof right there) with a ticket stamped "Believe." The Santa Clause (which has spawned increasingly irrelevant sequels) stars Tim Allen as Scott Calvin, a busy businessman who --even when he's taken to the North Pole and fitted into Santa's life, has a hard time believing in the concept of Santa; as he flies off in Santa's sleigh, Scott calls out, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! When I get home, I'm getting a CAT scan!"
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.