For the past few winters, my teaching schedule has me reading Anna Freud’s monograph, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense at around the same time that I come across the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. One wouldn’t think that they have much in common, but each year I am re-reminded of passages in the book that come to life in the film.
Miracle on 34th Street is a light, beautifully constructed story about a bearded, white haired portly gentleman (Edmund Gwenn) who insists, and clearly believes, that he is the real Santa Claus. Although he gives as his address an old age home in Great Neck instead of the North Pole, he does go by the name of Kris Kringle. From the outset, the film pulls at us to disregard our “common sense” and join in the collective fantasy that this is truly Santa Claus.
The first “proof” of Santa is a public and superficial one, but it does enlist our sympathy, forcing us to choose sides. The story follows an arc that begins on Thanksgiving Day and ends on Christmas Day. We are first introduced to Kris as a likeable oddball who attempts to correct the arrangement of reindeer in a storefront window. The fellow putting up the exhibit clearly thinks he’s addled, but we are charmed, and since we are watching a movie, our expectations are flexible. As the story progresses, there are little bits of evidence that he may be Santa Claus. He knows all about toys and where they can be found, he speaks fluent Dutch to a refugee girl who has been adopted by an American family. Above all, he is kind and loving, the way we might expect Santa to be. We come to want him to be Santa.
Kris happens into the role of Santa in the Macy’s Parade, replacing the hired Santa who is dead drunk by parade time. From there, he becomes the store Santa for Macy’s where he wins over Mr. Macy himself by establishing an entire new ad campaign around sending parents to other stores for toys that Macy’s doesn’t have, winning Macy’s a large quantity of good will.
There are suggestions throughout the story that Kris is concerned that the spirit of Christmas is being lost to commercialism. The tension is set up between idealism and cynicism and over the value of fantasy.
In an early scene, Kris talks with a teenager, Alfred, who sweeps floors at Macy’s. Alfred tells him that he plays Santa at the local Y in Brooklyn.
Kris: You enjoy impersonating me?
Alfred: I don’t know. When I give packages to the little kids, I like to watch their faces get that Christmas look all of a sudden. It makes me feel kind’a good and important.
At this point, a Macy’s employee comes in to give Kris a list of toys “that we have to push. Things that we’re overstocked on.” Kris is instructed that when a child is undecided, he should suggest one of those items. Kris is incensed. He tells Alfred, “Imagine. Making a child take something it doesn’t want just because he bought too many of the wrong toys. That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years, the way they commercialize Christmas.”
It is no surprise that Kris is very upset when Macy’s store psychologist, Granville Sawyer, “analyzes” Alfred, telling him that his desire to please children is based upon deep seated guilt. He also has told Alfred that he hates his father.1 Kris has had his own problems with Sawyer, a grumpy man who has declared Kris psychotic and dangerous. By questioning Alfred’s kindness, Sawyer forces us to choose sides not only over belief in fantasy, but over belief that people are capable of being kind and good.
In his confrontation with Mr. Sawyer, Kris gets so angry that he bops him on the head with his cane, giving Sawyer evidence that Kris is not only crazy, as he has contended, but also dangerous. Sawyer convinces one of the executives at Macy’s to have Kris committed, bringing matters to a head and forcing us to choose sides between the kindly Santa who is being threatened with being held in a locked psychiatric unit and the mean, duplicitous Sawyer, who believes only in greed, aggression and personal advantage.
In the commitment trial, Kris’s attorney, Fred Gailey (John Payne), first establishes that there is a Santa Claus by bringing the state’s attorney’s son to the stand to say that his father told him that there was a Santa Claus, then that Kris is Santa by showing that a huge pile of letters to Santa Claus have been directed to Kris in the courtroom by the post office. The judge, who wants no part of the political fallout from committing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, declares that the United States Government has decided that Kris is Santa, throwing out the commitment. We have little choice other than to be drawn into the fun of Fred and Kris’s victory.
But as a proof of Santa, this has a superficial quality. We enjoy the fun, but we can see the trickery. Kris, himself, sets the test on a more personal level. This “proof” revolves around a little girl and her mother who Kris sets as his test case. He has chosen them because they are kind people who have chosen not to accept fantasy in their lives.
This is where Anna Freud came into it for me. In Chapter six of The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Ms. Freud talks about the use of fantasy as a normal childhood function. Starting with Little Hans and moving to examples of her own and other analysts who treat children, she demonstrates that children use fantasy to defend against realities with which their child-like egos could not otherwise contend. Little Hans ultimately solved his dilemma of being unable to compete with his father by developing a fantasy of a plumber who removes his genitals and replaces them with bigger ones. Ms. Freud points out that the fantasies exhibited by the children she and others have treated are “by no means peculiar to these particular children: they are universal in fairy tales and other children’s stories.” (p. 77)
The little girl in Miracle on 34th Street, Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), pointedly does not believe in fantasies or fairy tales. We first see her watching the Thanksgiving Day parade with her neighbor, Fred Gailey.
Fred: Looks like they’re having a little trouble with the baseball player.
Susan: He was a clown last year. They just changed the head and painted him different. My mother told me.
Fred: He certainly is a giant, isn’t he?
Susan: Not really. There are no giants, Mr. Gailey.
Fred: Well maybe not now, Susie, but in olden days there were a lot of …
Susan shakes her head knowingly.
Fred: Well, what about the giant that Jack killed?
Susan: Jack, Jack who?
Fred: Jack, Jack … Jack and the beanstalk.
Susan: I never heard of that.
Fred: You must have heard of that. You’ve just forgotten. It’s a fairy tale.
Susan: Oh, one of those. I don’t know any fairy tales.
Fred: Oh, your mother and father must have told you a fairy tale.
Susan: No. My mother thinks they’re silly. I don’t know whether my father thinks they’re silly or not. I never met my father. You see, my father and mother were divorced when I was a baby.
Fred: Well, that baseball player certainly looks like a giant to me.
Susan: People sometimes grow very big, but that’s abnormal.
Fred: I’ll bet your mother told you that, too.
Susan comes across as precocious, a caricature of an adult. The lack of a capacity to fantasize looks odd in a child that age. A little later in the film, as she talks with Kris, we see that it is interfering with her ability to play with other children her age.
Kris: What sort of games do you play with the other children in the apartment building?
Susan: I don’t play much with them. They play silly games.
Kris: They do?
Susan: Like today. They were in the basement playing zoo and all of them were animals! When I came down, Homer, he was supposed to be the zoo keeper, he said, “What kind of animal are you?” And I said, “I’m not an animal. I’m a girl.” He said, “Only animals allowed here. Goodbye!” So I came upstairs.
Kris: Why didn’t you claim you were a lion or a bear?
Susan: Because I’m not a bear or a lion.
Kris: Yes, but the other children were only children, but they were pretending to be animals.
Susan: But that’s what makes the game so silly.
Kris: Oh, I don’t think so. It sounds like a wonderful game to me. Of course, in order to play it, you’ve got to have an imagination. Do you know what the imagination is?
Susan: Oh, sure. That’s when you see things, but they’re not really there.
Kris: Well, that can be caused by other things too. No, to me imagination is a place all by itself, another country. You’ve heard of the French nation, the British nation. Well this is the Imagi-nation. It’s a wonderful place. How would you like to be able to make snowflakes in the summer time, eh? Or drive a great big bus right down Fifth Avenue? How would you like to have a ship all to yourself that makes daily trips to China or Australia? How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty in the morning and in the afternoon fly south with a flock of geese?
He clearly has her astonished attention as she nods vigorously, her eyes wide. He goes on to teach her how to act like a monkey and has her dancing around the room grunting and scratching her side.
Here is the heart of the story, the importance of imagination and fantasy. We see Susan as lacking something vital. The beautiful and skillful child star, Natalie Wood, enlists us in her conflict over the wish to indulge in fantasy and the need to stick to reality.
The film, of course, while intended to engage children, engages adults as well. Without succeeding in that, I suspect it would be relegated to occasional showings on Nickelodeon or some suitable children’s venue rather than being watched each year by nostalgic adults. Anna Freud was less sanguine about adult fantasy. She makes a slight concession at one point: “We know that in adult life, daydreams may still play a part, sometimes enlarging the boundaries of a too narrow reality and sometimes completely reversing the real situation. But in adult years a daydream is almost of the nature of a game, a kind of by-product with but a slight libidinal cathexis; at most it serves to master quite trifling quantities of discomfort or to give the subject an illusory relief from some minor unpleasure.” (p.81)
But she adds a few lines later: “At any rate, it is certain that in adult life gratification through fantasy is no longer harmless. As long as more considerable quantities of cathexis are involved, fantasy and reality become incompatible; it must be one or the other. We know, too, that for an id impulse to make an irruption into the ego and there to obtain gratification by means of hallucination spells, for an adult, psychotic disease. An ego which attempts to save itself anxiety and renunciation of instinct and to avoid neurosis by denying reality is overstraining this mechanism.” (p. 81)
We could speculate that the store psychologist, Sawyer, had read this passage before passing judgment on Kris. Anna Freud (circa 1936) might well have been brought in as an expert witness for the prosecution in Kris’s commitment trial.
Susan’s adult counterpart is her mother, Doris, who also lacks the ability to tolerate fantasy. In fact, it is Doris who has taught Susan to distrust her imagination. She and Fred have an ongoing dialogue about this aspect of child rearing.
Fred: I see she (Susan) doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, either. No Santa Claus, no fairy tales, no fantasies of any kind. Is that it?
Doris: That’s right. I think 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.
They resume the conversation later when Doris takes Fred to task for taking Susan to meet Santa at Macy’s.
Fred: “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t see any harm in just letting her say hello to the old felluh.
Doris: But I think there is harm. I tell her Santa Claus is a myth and you bring her down here, she sees hundreds of gullible children, meets a 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. …
It is through this subplot that the film wins us over. In Kris’s words, we see how the public issue of the Christmas spirit and idealism is translated into a personal story: “You see Mrs. Walker, this is quite an opportunity for me. For the past fifty years or so I’ve been getting more and more worried about Christmas. It seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less and Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.” She tries to reassure him that “Christmas is still Christmas.” He responds, “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. And that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it. And I’m glad I met you and your daughter. You two are a test case for me. … Yes, you’re sort of a test case in miniature. If I can win you two over, there’s still hope.”
When Fred Gailey offers to take him in as a roommate, he accepts, seeing it as an opportunity to have more time with Susan. He enlists Fred as an ally. Kris will work on Susie and Fred on Doris. In fact, when Kris is taken to Bellevue, he deliberately fails the psychiatric exam because, he explains, he thought that Doris had collaborated in his commitment. Fred convinces him that she didn’t know about it and that he should not give up.
Kris is right, of course, because it is through Susan and Doris that he will win us over, the audience. Susan is taken with this kindly grandfatherly figure who sings her nursery rhymes at bedtime and blows bubble gum bubbles with her. She is also slowly won over by the fatherly Fred Gailey. A turning point comes at the time of Kris’s commitment hearing.
Hearing about the commitment trial, Susan tells her mother that she has a feeling Kris is Santa Claus. “He’s so kind and nice and jolly. He’s not like anyone else. He must be Santa.” To our surprise, Doris answers, “I think perhaps you’re right, Susie.” This is the first time she has called Susan by her diminutive name as Fred and Kris have. She is beginning to accept her as a child.
Susie decides to send Kris a letter to cheer him up. It reads: “Dear Mr. Kringle, My mother says you are sad now. I am writing to you because I want you to be happy again and to tell you that I believe all you told me and everything will turn out fine. I even believe you will get me the present I asked for. I hope you are not sad.”
Seeing the letter, Doris adds, “I believe in you, too.”
It is this letter directed to Kris Kringle at the court that starts the men in the post office thinking about sending their Santa letters to Kris at the courthouse.
Susie’s present that she had asked for is a house, a two story colonial with a back yard and a swing in the back. Kris has told her that Santa can’t give everything that every child wishes for, but he will try. After his case is dismissed, on Christmas Eve, Kris invites Doris, Susie and Fred to a Christmas party the next day at the old age home in Great Neck. There are presents under the tree, but Susie is bitterly disappointed that Santa has not given her the house she had wanted.
She tells Kris, “You couldn’t get it because you’re not Santa Claus. You’re just a nice old man with whiskers, like my mother said. I shouldn’t have believed you.”
Doris says, with concern, “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.”
She goes on to tell her daughter that “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. I mean, just because things don’t turn out the way you want them to the first time, you’ve still got to believe in people. I found that out.”
Doris has been given a second chance, a chance to believe in people. I will return now to the dialogue between Fred and Doris over his taking Susan to see Santa.
Doris: I tell her Santa Claus is a myth and you bring her down here, she sees hundreds of gullible children, meets a 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. They keep waiting for Prince Charming to come along. When he does, he turns out to be …
Here Fred interrupts with a pointed interpretation, “We were talking about Susie, not about you.”
We never do get to hear what Doris’s Prince Charming, her ex husband, turned out to be. We are left to assume that he was not what he appeared to be, but turned out to be a cad who betrayed her love and her trust and left her clinging to “reality.” Doris has been disillusioned in love and has decided that she won’t be fooled again.
We have sensed that Doris’s distrust of fantasy is extreme and pathologic. We are obviously concerned at her engendering that distrust in a child. But now we can see that she is trying to protect her daughter from later disappointment and, as Fred points out, is attempting to undo her own traumatic relationship through Susan.
But we are also led to suspect that Doris is trying to shut herself off from love. Her distrust of fantasy and imagination is itself a defense designed to protect her from the disappointment that we can feel if we allow ourselves to love. It points up to us that we depend upon some level of fantasy to allow us to enter into some of the most important relationships in our lives. It is likely that unconscious fantasy is closely tied to some of our strongest and most important emotions. Without such fantasies, how would we subvert our own interests to those of a beloved, a child or lover? In this sense, the film takes issue with Ms. Freud’s dismissal of the importance of fantasy in adult life.2
Doris has been given her second chance through one of the most subtle romances in film history. It begins with Fred Gailey romancing the child to get to the mother. When Doris returns from the parade, she finds Susan in Fred’s apartment, watching the ongoing parade from his window. They have been having their chat about the “giant” that we saw earlier and have a cozy relationship when Susan’s mother enters. They tell each other that Susan has told them a lot about the other.
Serving her coffee, Fred makes a confession after Doris has thanked him for being so kind to Susan. He answers, “I must confess it’s part of a deep dyed plot. I’m fond of Susie, very fond. But I also wanted to meet you. I read someplace that the surest way to meet the mother is to be kind to the child.” While this sounds forthcoming, he has held back his trump card. As Susan and Doris are leaving the apartment, Susan asks her mother to invite Mr. Gailey to share their Thanksgiving turkey. Their scheming comes to light when she asks him, “Did I ask right?” Despite the duplicity, Doris good-naturedly tells him that dinner is at 3.
As significant as the words is the setting. Fred makes his pitch serving Doris coffee in his kitchen. This will be a domestic courtship. After their little tiff at Macy’s over Fred taking Susan to see Santa Claus, we next find him in her kitchen, helping prepare dinner and even telling her it’s time to take the meat out of the oven while Kris is in the dining room teaching Susan to be a monkey. He is wearing an apron and carrying a glass of milk when he goes out to see Kris and Susan. It is then that he gets the idea of inviting Kris to stay at his place. When Doris’s phone rings, Fred answers it. He is winning his way into her home on the way to her heart.
The next time we see them together, they greet each other with smiles at her door and he kisses her on the cheek, telling her he reserved “our regular table at Luigi’s.” It is in this scene that he tells her he quit his job rather than drop Kris’s case.
She says to him, “Look, darling, he’s a nice old man and I admire you for wanting to help him, but you’ve got to be realistic and face facts. You can’t just throw your career away because of a sentimental whim.”
He tells her he will open his own law office, defending “people like Kris that are being pushed around. That’s the only fun in law anyway. But I promise you, if you have faith in me and believe in me, everything will … You don’t have any faith in me, do you?”
She answers, “It’s not a question of faith, it’s just common sense.”
He tells her the words that she will repeat back to Susan on Christmas Day. “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” He goes on to state the film’s credo, “It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s all the things he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”
Frustrated, she tells him to grow up. They begin to argue, and she says, “These last few days we’ve talked about some wonderful plans, and then you go on an idealistic binge.” She looks lost and disturbed as he walks out the door.
In just a few short scenes with no more than a kiss on the cheek, Fred and Doris have begun to look like a married couple, calling each other “darling,” having a regular table at the restaurant, making “wonderful plans,” quarreling relatively gently about child rearing and career ambitions. There are never any dramatic turnings, any statements of love. As the film progresses, we see them drawing closer, closer in domestic ways, working in the kitchen together, discussing his career, talking about Susie.
That is because this is a love affair seen through the eyes of a child. Fred is fatherly before he is a suitor. He works his way into the lives of mother and daughter, setting the table, helping with the meal. This is a domestic romance. What is more, the issues of faith and idealism not only have to do with Kris being Santa Claus. Now, there is a second tension. Doris believing in Kris is tied to her believing in Fred, and that is tied to the prospect of their forming a family for Susie.
All of this comes together at the film’s climax. At the end of the Christmas party at which Susie has been disappointed at not getting her present, Kris gives Fred specific directions for driving back to the city. As they are driving, following Kris’s directions, they already look like an intact family with Fred driving, Doris beside him and Susie in the back, trying to convince herself to have faith.
Susie suddenly tells “Uncle Fred” to stop the car. She runs into a house with a “for sale” sign on the lawn. Running in, she announces that this is her house from Santa, the one she had asked for. Excitedly, she sees that there is a swing in the back. She tells Fred that her mother had told her that if things didn’t work out the first time you still have to believe.
He turns to Doris. “You told her that?” They embrace and kiss. “The sign outside says it’s for sale. We can’t let her down.”
“I never really doubted you. It was just my silly common sense.”
Then, Fred and Doris see Kris’s cane propped up near the fireplace, the final proof.
Susie’s house is the miracle that gives conviction that Kris is Santa, but Santa’s gift to Susie, Doris and Fred is much more than a house. His true gift, the one that reaches our hearts and makes us want to believe, is an intact family.
As psychoanalysts we focus on the conflicts within the family, the Oedipus complex, clumsily alluded to by the store psychologist to Alfred when he tells him he hates his father. But we all know that there is also a very powerful, ubiquitous wish on the part of every child, and every adult who was a child, to have an intact family. It is that wish that finally pulls us in. We know that whatever the circumstances of our lives when we happen to see Miracle on 34th Street, we still hold a place in our minds for the comforts and loving of family, the loving relationships of parents and children and parents and parents. If Santa Claus can give a fatherless child a loving father, then we have to believe. That is the fantasy that the film uses to comfort and warm us and that allows us for that moment to want to believe in Santa Claus.
Freud, Anna (1936) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. (English Translation; 1966 Edition) New York; International Universities Press.
1.To Kris’s credit, when he confronts the psychologist, Mr. Sawyer, he accuses him of practicing without proper training and credentials, telling him he’s not a psychiatrist and asking if he’s a licensed psychologist.
2. With the qualifier that she appeared to be talking about conscious fantasy.
Previously published in the PANY Bulletin and in InternationalPsychoanalysis.net
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