“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) sets two interesting precedents for the American public. First, it becomes a traditional must-see film for the Christmas holiday season, something warm and fuzzy, and frequently re-made. Secondly, and more importantly, it openly and frankly acknowledges, perhaps even establishes, the phenomenon of yuletide commercialism, Black Friday binges, Cyber Mondays and Thanksgiving as a warm-up act for the big show to follow.
Maureen O’Hara is in Human Resources at New York City’s famed Macy’s Department Store, and is in charge of the Thanksgiving Parade. She hires Edmund Gwenn as a last-minute replacement for the fellow supposed to play Santa Claus, whose float brings up the rear of the parade. She has unwittingly hired the real Santa Claus to play himself, and that is where the plot takes off. John Payne is her prospective beau and Santa’s attorney, and young Natalie Wood her daughter, who does not believe in Santa.
We have a few shots of Macy’s and a couple of actors playing Mr. Macy and his rival, Mr. Gimble, but it’s not really so much about Macy’s or New York City. This could be any department store in any town. These could be your kids waiting in line in to sit in Santa’s lap, or it could be you, or your parents. We have a suggestion of the late war with the most touching scene in the movie probably where the little girl from Holland, who does not speak English, is captivated by a Santa Claus who can easily converse with her in Dutch. But most of the film is not about the past, either good old days or horrors gratefully behind us. It is not even about the present, with bustling well-dressed shoppers using cash instead of credit cards and content to wait until Christmas Eve to decorate their real trees, with dreams of their first suburban post-war homes dancing in their heads, topping their wish list.
It is about the future, a time which this film maps out even if it does not envision. It is about a time of paying with plastic, and of over-spending with plastic. It is about the economic reporters gauging, analyzing, cringing and exulting about how much money is being spent by the shopper, by the minute, in an America where two-thirds of our economy is dependent on this one short season.
It is about putting up the tree on Thanksgiving after rushing through the turkey dinner. It is about watching “Miracle on 34th Street” not because it is one of the few classic films which mentions that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, but because leads us into Christmas, ready, set, go right after you finish your piece of pumpkin pie.