My favourite humanist film is Miracle on 34th Street. Not the Richard Attenborough remake – the 1947 black-and-white original, with Edmund Gwenn and Maureen O’Hara. It’s lovely. Really. There’s a delightful humanist message at its core, and I think it’s the most positive, thoughtful and festively uplifting film out there. Unlike its modern counterpart, which is broken.
Admittedly, at first glance the premise may not seem terribly rational. A man claiming to be Santa Claus is sectioned, and a court case held to determine his sanity. How is a legal battle over the existence of Santa not a done deal? A hotshot lawyer has something to say, as do a judge up for re-election and a young girl taught not to believe in Santa – as the case captures the attention of the nation.
If you’re anything like me, you’re already thinking ‘metaphor!’. And you’re right. In the remake, Santa is standing in for a higher power. It’s not subtle. The climax of the case sees Judge Harper desperately seeking a reason to affirm Santa’s existence, which is provided by the epically cute Mara Wilson. She hands over a dollar note inscribed with ‘In God We Trust’, and Judge Harper immediately sees the potential: since the U.S. government is happy to declare a belief in God without evidence – as do we all, he says – Santa can reap the precedent. Case dismissed!
The original doesn’t do this. The original doesn’t mention God at all. Is Santa real? It’s ambiguous. He’s still metaphorical, and there’s still talk of the virtues of belief, but every mention of the word ‘faith’ is immediately followed by a sentiment expressing the goodness of people, and how it’s people we should believe in. We should believe that things can turn out all right. We should give people second chances, even when things haven’t gone our way. 1994 Santa is an inspiration to believe in magic; 1947 Santa is an inspiration to be all that we can be.
But Miracle 1947 isn’t a fairy-tale. The judge, the toy store employers and the psychologist all act out of self-interest, even when they’re doing something good. Even the main characters start off looking out for themselves: John Payne takes an interest in the little girl to meet her mother – it’s only later that he starts acting selflessly. Miracle 1947 doesn’t pretend the world is perfect, just that its muddle of humanity can come good in the end. People can do the right thing, and self-interest isn’t always a negative force.
The films’ differing world-views are clear: Miracle 1947 says ‘faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to’; Miracle 1994 says ‘if you can’t accept anything in faith then you’re doomed to a life dominated by doubt’. Let’s just go ahead and say Miracle 1947 is better. Its faith, always founded upon humanity, isn’t metaphysical – it’s the faith that keeps us going when all seems bleak, and gives us hope for humanity: it’s a faith informed by reason. Modern humanists might choose a different word, but we like the sentiment.
Sentiment itself is a touchy issue in the Miracles. Comparing 1994 with 1947, it’s obvious how filmmaking styles have changed – there’s much more sentiment in the remake, and this is generally considered a bad thing. Indeed, sentiment is critical kryptonite: describing a film as ‘sentimental’ is never an endorsement. But, from a humanist perspective, this is rather curious.
New Humanist’s Laurie Taylor, a man high on life if ever there was one, recently spoke of the role sentiment plays in our lives, pointing out that its derision is at odds with our own experience. Some of our most enjoyable and memorable moments, whether cinematic, literary, or whatever, are entirely sentimental. And this is obviously true: who doesn’t remember reading Little Women? Or watching E.T.? We seem more ashamed of some than others, but who can honestly say they were unmoved by Titanic?
Humanists are no exception. At this October’s TAM: London, Tim Minchin finished his musical set with White Wine in the Sun. The song starts out praising Christmas, but ends with a father expressing his love for his daughter. He wants her to know that no matter where she is, or how old she is, her family will be waiting for her at Christmas. It’s pure sentiment, and half the audience were in tears. I can’t even type it without getting misty-eyed. Give me a moment here.
Ok I’m back. The point is: despite the sentiment, I’ve not seen a bad word written about Tim Minchin’s performance. So it’s odd when critics describe sentiment as manipulative, as if that’s a bad thing. We don’t watch Some Like it Hot, then complain how it manipulated our humour reflexes. Maybe we only cringe when we’re worried that people might see our emotions, or maybe we’re just fussy about the way sentiment is expressed, but the peaks and troughs of life are part of the human condition, and as humanists we can surely appreciate that empathy is vitally important in living the good life. There’s nothing wrong with feeling for others, whether they’re real or not. I actually quite like the sentiment in Miracle 1994. Christmas is inherently sentimental, after all: most people choose to spend it with their loved ones. We don’t ask why that is – no explanation is required. As Laurie said, maybe we should give sentiment a break.
But a deeper problem with Miracle 1994 is its negativity. ‘I’m a symbol of the human ability to be able to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives’, says 1994 Santa. His aim is to bring a little light to a hideous world full of fear and pain, and torn apart by consumerism and commercialism. The latter is pretty much in keeping with popular commentary: to listen to modern newspaper commentators, you’d think consumerism was cooked up by Voldemort, Skeletor and Nick from Eastenders to bring about the downfall of mankind.
But while Miracle 1947 has something to say about capitalist angst, it keeps a rational perspective: Santa has issues with the behaviour of the toy stores, and states them clearly, but doesn’t labour the point. I find this a relief: I think humanists can agree that consumerism and commercialism are problematic in some ways, but also see that wanting to own/sell things doesn’t immediately make you a reprehensible philistine. Similarly, humanists are familiar with self-styled moral leaders playing the oh-doesn’t-the-world-suck card. It’s a trick. We don’t think the world is a pit of moral decay, nor that human nature is inherently corrupt. And we’re suspicious of anyone who says otherwise. Even if it’s Santa.
In fact, Miracle 1947 is surprisingly rational, and actually provides some decent lessons in critical thinking. When Santa’s defence lawyer glibly asks the state to prove Santa isn’t real, the court insists that the burden of proof rests with those making the claim – a line omitted in the remake. Shortly afterwards, the lawyers and judge agree that the anecdotal evidence of witness testimony is of little value, and stronger verification is required. Skeptics may also appreciate the scene where Santa channels Ben Goldacre, calling out a ‘psychologist’ for practising without a real qualification and describing him as a disgrace to the noble profession of psychiatry. Said quack is later accused of obtaining his license through a correspondence course. Of course, this was 1947, and such a ridiculous notion would be impossible today.
Miracle 1947‘s main characters are rational and, I think, very humanist. Santa does good for the sake of doing good. John Payne quits his job to defend Santa, because it’s the right thing to do. But the most interesting character, from a humanist perspective, is Mrs Walker – the woman who discovers Santa, but struggles with his delusion. In both Miracles, Mrs Walker’s journey from skeptic to believer is the heart of the story, but the take-home messages differ wildly.
Miracle 1994 goes off the deep end by having Mrs Walker start off as the humanist straw-man of creationist screed. Half Vulcan, half Dalek, she tells no fairy tales, teaches her child the truth about Santa, doesn’t really like Christmas all that much, and will not stand to be questioned. She even tells her daughter to ask Santa for something ridiculous, saying his failure will provide evidence he isn’t really magic. By the end she’s converted, and it’s transparent and all a bit annoying.
1947 Mrs Walker is much more subtle. She still tells her daughter Santa isn’t real, because the truth is the best defence against disappointment, but comes to realise that the world is a better place than she thought. Santa shows her that people can be good. In 1994 she decides that faith in magical beings is shiny and brilliant, but in 1947 she discovers that trusting and believing in people is a worthy endeavour. She becomes a modern humanist – rational and compassionate, and willing to invest in those around her. Still not so much with the magic, though. 1947 Mrs Walker would politely tell 1994 Mrs Walker where to get off.
You get the impression that neither Mrs Walker is too fussed about Christmas. The überlawyer would-be-boyfriend, though, is obviously a nut for the festive season, and their viewpoints bounce off each other throughout the film. This is a nice mirror for the contemporary humanist perspective on Christmas.
I haven’t met many humbug humanists. Sure, there are some who disavow the entire season, but they’re a rarity and best avoided. In my experience, most humanists enjoy the chance to relax, take stock and celebrate whatever they choose to celebrate. The religious aspect is a non-issue. But (as with many Christmas films) Miracle has an implied question that we all hear from time to time: why do we even acknowledge Christmas, when we obviously don’t believe?
The obvious and immediate response is to detail the actual roots of Christmas: that the Roman festival of Saturnalia just so happened to be at the same time; that holly, candles and carols come from Scandinavian traditions; that Christmas was barely celebrated until Charles Dickens rendered it awesome; that ‘traditional’ trees are only a recent addition to the holiday – and don’t forget Jeremiah 10:3-4:
For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan. People deck it with silver and gold they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
All of which is true, and, you know, quite funny, but perhaps misses the point. We fall into a trap when we say ‘aha, but you didn’t come up with the idea, did you?’ Because it doesn’t matter how it started. Even if Christmas was 100% described in the Bible, we’d still get to strip the weird stuff and enjoy the rest. This isn’t rude or disrespectful – we’re not preventing others celebrating, but we’re not bound by their rules, because we’re not in their club. There’s no copyright on celebration, and nobody gets to forever assign meaning to ritual. I don’t care why we put up coloured lights – I just like pretty lights, dammit! This is the pleasingly secular message of Miracle 1947: celebrate however you like, and don’t worry about what other people think, but stand firm in your convictions.
All of which is to say: 1947 Miracle on 34th Street is nice. It’s an uplifting festive story, full of understandable motivations, worthy sentiment, and plenty of humanist brain-fodder. And if you’re wondering how the court resolves the issue of Santa’s existence without recourse to deities – well, I won’t spoil the surprise.
Andrew West – 22/12/2009