Tag Archives: interpretations

Miracle on 34th Street; An Atheist’s Perspective on Santa

Kris and Susan
Best Christmas movie ever. Except The Christmas Carol, but I’ll get to that soon.

I should start by explaining that my parents never let us believe in Santa Claus. They were afraid that when they told us he wasn’t real, it would make us wondering if other mythological-sounding ideas might be questioned, like the entire Christian religion. It was a Nativity-only household. In retrospect, I still experienced the same story as my Santa-believer friends. We were both taught about a man who comes to bring wonderful gifts, but only if you’re very good and believe in him. Disbelief meant you were cynical and coldly logical, incapable of true joy and goodwill toward men. Disbelieving people like that are the whole reason the world sucks. If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. Jesus/Santa loves you, and the fact that he won’t prove his existence but still will punish you for not living up to his standards in no way contradicts that.

Of course, the difference is that Santa is bringing toys that you want, but can live without, and kids aren’t actually expected to believe in Santa past early childhood. Still, I can’t shake the association. The parallels run too deep, and I have no nostalgia to fall back on. The first (and last) time I watched The Santa Clause with my boyfriend I think I ended up crying.

Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!
Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!

My other issue with Santa Claus movies is that the moral is usually that life is meaningless and depressing if fairy tales aren’t true. Unfortunately, once the credits roll we return to a world where they aren’t. The ultimate message of such stories is that if we aren’t delusional, we are nihilists.

The only Santa movie I can appreciate is The Miracle on 34th Street, because at least that way I can pretend there is no magic and Kris Kringle is just a high-functioning schizophrenic. Wait, wait, bear with me. That’s not as awful as it sounds.

For those who haven’t seen it (and you really should), Miracle on 34th Street is about a kindly old man, an old man, Kris Kringle, is hired as a last minute replacement to be Macy’s Santa Claus. He turns out to believe he really is Santa, Father Christmas, Sinterclaas, Saint Nicholas, the whole mythology wrapped into one person. The movie opens with Kris discovering that the man hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is intoxicated. He immediately finds the organizer, Doris Walker, informs her of the problem, and despite his reluctance is talked into being the replacement. In his words, “the children mustn’t be disappointed.” This establishes him as a kindly, responsible person; if you have a soul, he’s nigh impossible to dislike.

When that same organizer offers him a job being a full-time mall Santa, he can’t resist the opportunity to, as he says, combat some of the commercialism that has taken over Christmas. While on his throne, instead of recommending nothing but Macy’s toys, he informs customers of other chains that can provide what they really want. Oh, he’ll shill Macy’s when they’ve really got the product the kids want, but if he knows a better deal can be found somewhere else, nothing can convince him to hide that fact.

His employers are upset by this, for all of about ten seconds. Then they realize the kind of publicity their new Santa is bringing them, and suddenly he’s their most valuable employee. This becomes a problem when Doris discovers Kris’ delusion.

Doris is a very nuanced character. She is a single mother in the 40s who, contrary to what you might expect of that era, is portrayed as both a professional employee and an attentive, caring mother. Her only flaw is that she insists her daughter Susan be raised in an entirely practical way. This means not only no Santa Claus, but no fairy tales, tooth fairies or fantasies of any kind. Doris’ reasons are sympathetic. What happened to Susan’s father is never explained, but it seems he abandoned the family in some traumatic way, and that Doris blames fairy tales for giving her an unrealistic image of the knight in shining armor. She’s trying to protect her daughter from that. Instead of letting us assume that of course Doris is wrong, despite her good intentions, the movie bothers to show us the effects of this on Susan. She’s a very nice, intelligent girl, but her social life is stunted because she doesn’t know how to engage in imaginative play, even at a developmentally appropriate level. This means she’s missing out on creative and social skills that will be important later on in her life.

In addition to changing things at Macy’s Kris has another mission. He wants to teach Doris and Susan to open up. Doris is wounded by her loss of faith in people, and Susan is learning a reflexively cynical attitude from her. The interesting thing is that while he insists he is Santa Claus, he also doesn’t seem to care too much whether or not other people believe him. If other people believe in him, that’s a nice bonus, but its more important that they believe in what he stands for. His interventions with Susan aren’t centered around proving his reality, but on giving her imagination lessons. The scene where he teaches her to pretend to be a monkey is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.

The Monkey Lesson
The Monkey Lesson

While Kris is trying to spread joy, optimism, childish creativity and the giving spirit, the department store psychologist is trying to get him committed as a lunatic. This movie has a remarkably nuanced approach to psychology. Unlike some movies, where the medical professionals would be creatures of unadulterated evil for daring to convince children that they shouldn’t believe in fantasies past when it’s developmentally appropriate (the nerve of them!), this film has two doctors. One, Dr. Sawyer, has clearly entered the profession because it gives him license to see the worst in everyone, which distracts him from his own small, petty character. A bit of an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people like this.

The other works at the nursing home where Kris lived previously. Dr. Pierce also believes Kris is delusional, but he doesn’t think Kris should be locked up. As he explains, mental illnesses don’t make someone inherently dangerous. Kris is gentle, intelligent, and his whole psychosis is centered around a desire to help people. All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him in case he takes a bad turn, and otherwise he should be treated just like anyone else. This is completely accurate. Mental health is complex, and the real world has many people whose situation is similar to Kris’s. Dr. Pierce’s reaction is not only humanitarian, but practical, especially in a world just prior to the invention of effective antipsychotic medication. An asylum couldn’t do much for him, so why not let him have the best quality of life that he can?

I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a delightfully happy one… and also lacks convincing proof that Kris really is Santa Claus. There’s a minor miracle, but one that has potential mundane explanations. Many of the good characters end up believing in him, but not all, and several seem to be at a point of agnosticism, or tell him they believe he is Santa Claus but seem to mean that metaphorically. The real lesson of the film is in the triumph of optimism and kindness over cynical self-interest, and whether characters end up believing in Santa as fact or as a metaphor for the Christmas spirit is not really important. The standard interpretation, that Kris Kringle was Santa all along, is fine if you prefer that, but it is based more in genre conventions than anything else.

Peace, joy and family for everyone
Peace, joy and family for everyone

So why don’t I find the interpretation that Kris Kringle is mentally ill depressing? Because even if he is, it means he’s a mentally ill person who still leads a fulfilling, happy life surrounded by people who care about him. It means that even in a world without magic, pragmatists and capitalists can see the value of kindness, cynics can rediscover hope, mean spirited trolls can lose and love can win. It means that even without fairy tales being real, imagination and joy can triumph.

Why would anybody want it any other way?

Why Do We Want to Know What the Author Meant?

This post has had a long history.

First I was trying to write a post on writing disabled characters, and it assumed that Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory was autistic. That post will definitely still happen, for the record. Then I kept getting sidetracked by explaining why I believed he was autistic, even if it has neither been confirmed in story orĀ  by the authors. Explaining that in part means explaining my philosophy on the validity of interpretations. So I decided to make that a post all on its own. As part of that post, I started casually polling friends about their interpretations of interpretations. As I did this, I realized I was being a little dishonest to myself about my own philosophy, or rather how I apply it.

I originally meant to assert once again that all interpretations are equally valid, regardless of what the author says outside of the text. The only way an interpretation can be less valid is if it’s poorly supported by the text. I still essentially believe that, but as I talked to my friends I realized that I also like bending to the author’s stated intent as much as possible. I need a very serious reason to disagree with an author about their own work. Why do I do that?

Simple. Because the author is a point of reference who I have in common with all other readers.

I wrote a while back about how, while I enjoyed Harry Potter, I missed out on part of the Harry Potter experience by reading the books after the series was completely published, and the community that grew up with it and waited for each individual release was already nostalgic. Despite our common desire to have our own interpretations, most readers want to share their reading experience with somebody else. Having a community enhances the enjoyment for everyone who is a part of it… except perhaps when the community schisms. There are some divisions that seem to be playful, like certain popular shipping wars, but others that seem vitriolic and spiteful, like certain popular shipping wars.

In particular, divisions seem to get bitter when they depend on fundamentally different interpretations of the text. If you just like the dynamics of Katara and Zuko better than Katara and Aang, everything can stay fun, but if you believe, as one friend of mine did, that Katara and Aang getting together was incompatible with Aang’s mission to save the world, things can get heated in a not-fun way. When disagreements cut this deep, they can be hard to resolve, because the fans don’t have any evidence beyond the text, which is what caused the split in the first place.

In these cases, the author feels like the only one who can arbitrate. All us fans are on an equal footing, and there’s no reason any of us should be listened to over the other. The author, simply by virtue of having gone to the work of creating the piece, does stand out from the crowd of interpretations.

Or maybe that’s not it at all.

Maybe it’s that fiction is a shared delusion, but of course because your mind and my mind are different places, we are both bound to differ slightly in our interpretations. In your mind the flowers on the table are red roses. In mine they are yellow tulips. Most of the time these differences are so tiny they don’t disrupt the game of make-believe, but when they aren’t so small, that draws our attention to the fact that this is fiction. It slightly spoils the illusion. We want to be lost in our suspension of disbelief. When we let the author be the God of their world, able to dictate its laws, we can return to the illusion.

Unless of course the “word of God” fails to make sense. This brings me back to Sheldon, the original inspiration. I work with autistic children. I am regularly required to attend workshops about autism for my job. These workshops are taught by national experts, and they regularly illustrate their points with clips and gifs and screenshots of Sheldon. Sheldon exhibits the symptoms of high functioning autism so perfectly that when the creators say he doesn’t have it, to anyone with any real world experience of autism it sounds absurd. It’s like saying “he’s not blind, he just can’t see things and has a trained dog guide him around,” or “he’s not deaf, he just can’t hear so you have to learn to make words with your hands if you want to communicate.” The writers are drawing our attention to the fact that this is constructed universe, because we can only believe that Sheldon doesn’t have autism if this is a bizarre fictional world where the whims of some author reign supreme. Its impossible to both believe in Sheldon as a person, and believe in the Big Bang Theory universe and our universe, and not conclude that Sheldon has autism.

On reflection, I still think it’s the text that matters and not the author’s interpretation of it. However, I am perfectly capable of hearing somebody else’s interpretation and adopting it as my own because I like it. The author’s interpretation is as good as everyone else’s, and often it’s nice to adopt it because it helps lend coherence and verisimilitude to the story. Still, I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

What do you think?