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Throughout the season of Advent – which this year encompasses the four weeks leading up to December 25 – we’re looking at classic Christmas movies and how they might connect us to the miracle of God choosing to become a human being.
Children climbing into bed on Christmas Eve have always wrestled with some serious questions about Santa Claus.
How can he possibly visit all the homes in the world in a single night? What about the places that don’t have chimneys? And how can he cram all those presents onto a single sleigh?
Hannah Fry and Thomas Oleron Evans, a pair of mathematicians, plumb such mysteries in their 2017 book The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus. According to their calculations, Santa has to zip around the world at approximately 3,000 times the speed of sound and deliver something like 300,000 tons of presents.
A few years earlier, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly proposed that if the Jolly Old Elf drops in on all the children ages 14 and under who live in the countries where Christmas is celebrated, he would be visiting 526 million kids. That would mean 22 million children each hour, or 365,000 per minute, or (to round things off) 6,100 per second. He can improve those numbers, of course, by wisely flying from east to west across the world’s time zones, extending his delivery time to 32 hours.
Regardless, this guy has to hustle. Santa doesn’t have a lot of discretionary time to sample every plate of cookies and chug every glass of milk. If he did, Fry and Evans calculate he would ingest about 90 billion calories in one night. That leaves us pondering the age-old question: Does Santa get immensely larger every Christmas Eve, or does he maintain his physique by shimmying up and down all those chimneys?
A writer in the science journal Nature has proposed that Santa must be “a macroscopic quantum object,” an identity that allows him to be in multitudes of places simultaneously. Who knew that quantum mechanics would one day rescue Christmas?
The reality of Santa Claus is front and center in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, a movie that presents nothing magical or supernatural, dabbles in plenty of cynicism, yet still manages to create a palpable sense of wonder.
The story revolves around Kris Kringle, a Macy’s department store Santa in New York City who thinks he’s…well, the real Santa.
A young girl named Susan, played by Natalie Wood, is skeptical. She’s been taught not to believe in fairy tales. The adults in her world, including the directors of Macy’s, are torn. Kris is good for business. The children love him, which means their parents stick around to shop. But some of them conclude this Santa-pretender must be certifiably crazy.
Susan’s doubts are challenged when she witnesses the moment another young girl – a shy Dutch orphan who has been adopted by an American family but cannot speak English – comes to meet Kringle. Kris effortlessly begins to speak and sing in Dutch, delighting the girl. If he’s the real Santa Claus, he should know every language, right? Now both Susan and the audience are beginning to wonder.
Check out the heartwarming scene for yourself: Miracle on 34th street Dutch girl – YouTube
As Jeremy Arnold explains in his book Christmas at the Movies, 69-year-old character actor Edmund Gwenn realized this was the role of a lifetime. He packed on extra pounds to play Santa – and never really got back to his previous weight. But he did win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Gripping his Oscar he memorably said, “Now I know there’s a Santa Claus!”
The executives at 20th Century Fox, fearful that the movie might bomb, decided to release it not in December but during the summer, when moviegoing crowds were bigger. It didn’t matter. Audience members experienced Christmas in July. Letters addressed to Santa began to pour into Fox’s mailroom.
Followers of Jesus have never known exactly what to do with Santa Claus. How did this pale figure of fantasy end up taking center stage during the Christmas season, even while manger scenes are excluded from public holiday displays?
Before we push back against the North Pole’s most famous resident, however, it’s worth noting that St. Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, was definitely not a pale figure of fantasy.
Nicholas (A.D. 270-343) was the Bishop of Myra, a thriving community in what is now Turkey. The only child of wealthy Christian parents, he received a large inheritance when both his mother and father perished during an epidemic. He spent much of his life giving away his personal fortune to the sick, the suffering, and the poor.
The most celebrated account of Nicholas’ generosity concerns three little girls who were growing up in a poor family. Their father would never have been able to afford dowries for his daughters. Without a dowry, a young woman would have been hard pressed to find a husband, and might be forced into prostitution or slavery.
When the oldest girl came of age, Nicholas anonymously threw a bag of gold coins through the family’s open window. He did the same thing two more times as the others grew up. All three were thus able to marry. The story circulated that the bags of coins landed either in shoes or stockings that were drying by the fire. Children have been hanging up stockings or setting out shoes ever since in the hope of receiving gifts.
Today Nicholas is not only the Catholic Church’s patron saint of children, but of those trapped in sex trafficking (because of his intercession on behalf of those young girls) and of pawn brokers (which is why the traditional signage identifying a pawnshop features three bags of gold).
Nicholas became the prototype for Santa Claus, whose name derives from the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” a transliteration of “Saint Nicholas.” Santa gradually morphed into the waistline-challenged, chimney-rappelling, reindeer-loving Arctic elf under the influence of American writers and commercial marketers.
But what about Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street? Does he turn out to be the real Santa? It’s best that you find out for yourself by watching the movie.
Natalie Wood, for one, was a true believer. She was just eight years old during filming. Her character, Susan, wrestles with doubts. But later in life Natalie admitted that she genuinely believed Edmund Gwenn was the real Santa Claus.
Behind the seemingly trite façade that we see on Christmas cards and in ads for Coca-Cola and M&M’s we can hear the historical echoes of something real.
There once was a man who devoted his life to raising the hopes and improving the lives of poor children.
And we don’t have to star in a holiday movie to make that very same cause our own.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.