A Humanist Miracle
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, a judge up for re-election, and a young girl taught not to believe in Santa all have something to say, 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.