‘Tis the season and I’ve been popping in all the Christmas classics this season. But as I was watching Miracle on 34th Street (in the original 1947 black-and-white), I had an odd theory occur to me. Maybe it’s too much time spent dissecting my own writing, or maybe it’s been staring me in the face all this time. Kris Kringle in the film isn’t just not Santa Claus, I think I have an idea about who he might be.
Who he isn’t
Kris Kringle, the kindly old gentleman who takes over for an inebriated Santa in the Macy’s parade, isn’t Santa Claus. In fact, the only ones who ever actually believe are children. Even Fred Gailey, the lawyer who proves that Kris (for legal purposes) is Santa Claus, thinks he’s pulled off a clever bit of legal trickery—and he has. Complicit in this proof, willingly or not, are…
The judge: who allows that the State of New York won’t be prejudicial in its claims regarding the existence of Santa Claus. He’s up for re-election, and his campaign manager advises him in no uncertain terms that if he declares, with legal authority, that Santa doesn’t exist, it will have a real economic impact on his constituents. He’ll become unelectable.
The prosecutor: who has to choose between admitted to his son that he’s been lying about Santa being real (which might have been a viable option, if an emotionally damaging one) or allowing that Santa does exist. He falls back on the argument that Fred Gailey needs to prove that Kris is Santa Claus, not just that Santa exists. That leaves the door open for…
The US Post Office Department: or more accurately, a couple guys who work in New York’s sorting room. They find a valid address to deliver all the Santa letters from the dead letter office and unbury themselves (and have a little fun in the process). They don’t do it because they think Kris is Santa; they’re essentially pranking the court system and giving themselves some breathing room at work.
The judge (again): Could a State Supreme Court judge disallow delivered mail as evidence, or sanction the postal employees for suspicion of violating those same federal codes that Fred Gailey brings up as evidence that the Post Office Department is efficient? Yup. Was he still up for reelection? Yup. The path of least resistance (and going home for Christmas Eve dinner) said to just take it all at face value and call it a day.
Who he is
Kris Kringle (real name: unknown) is a man in his late 60’s or 70’s (the actor was 70), suffering from the harmless delusion that he is Santa Claus. He plays the part so well that he convinces otherwise rational people, or at least gets them to second-guess their disbelief in Old Saint Nick. He lives in an old folks home on Long Island, and has resided their for some years. He is outgoing, friendly, polite, helpful, and hopelessly enthralled with the happiness of children. In addition, he speaks Dutch, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the toy industry, and harbors a violent streak that he keeps suppressed.
The key moment
When Kris talks to young janitor friend Alfred over lunch, Alfred brings up that he routinely sees the company psychologist, Mr. Sawyer. Sawyer has convinced Alfred that he plays Santa Claus because he’s trying to make up for past misdeeds (which Alfred can’t recall, but he must have done something, right? or so Sawyer would have him believe).
This infuriates Kris. Why? On the surface, because Alfred is a nice guy who doesn’t deserve the guilt trip. But more than that, it strikes too close to home. Kris plays Santa Claus because he feels awful about the things he’s done in life. The short, violent outburst in Sawyer’s office is a hint of the man beneath, after which Kris composes himself and slips back into character.
So who is Kris Kringle? Here’s my take:
Kris Kringle was a former US Army intelligence officer. He served all over Europe in WWI, learning languages and cultures, blending in behind enemy lines and bringing vital intelligence back to Allied territory. Learning Dutch was easy, since he already spoke German, and he picked up some Christmas songs while posted in Holland during the holidays.
After the war, he struggled in civilian life. Everything reminded him of the Great War. He’d earned his army pension, and tried to life off that while volunteering to help with children’s charities. At the holidays, he dressed up as Santa, even growing out his beard to better play the part. For a while, that made him feel happy, but then the holidays ended and he was just a retired soldier again.
That was when he legally changed his name to Kris Kringle and decided to be Santa year-round.
By the time he arrived at the old folks home, he was, in essence, a retired Santa. Whether Kris’ doctor friend, Dr. Pierce, knew about his original identity is uncertain, but I suspect that he does. Nothing Pierce says ever indicates that he believes Kris is Santa Claus. He merely speaks to Kris’ delusion being harmless. Who he might once have been, no one ever thinks to ask him.
And the point of background checking is another sticky spot in the film. Macy’s lets him get away with listing reindeer as next of kin and blowing off his age as “as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.” The prosecutor doesn’t think to try digging up a birth certificate for Mr. Kringle, or tracking down court paperwork for a legal name change. It’s possible that Kris never actually legally changed his name. Due to his delusional state, even under oath he would have claimed to be Santa. Regardless, it was an open opportunity for anyone who wanted to disprove him being Santa Claus.
But here’s where his background in army intelligence comes in: keeping up his cover. This is Kris’ longest deep cover infiltration ever—the rest of his life. He knows the reindeer, the sleigh, all the little details are clear in his head, to the point where he’s correcting store window displays in the movie’s opening scene. But his knack for intelligence gathering is what lets him browse rival store catalogs and commit them to memory and to track down Suzie’s dream house from the magazine clipping she showed him. That last bit is the coup. Kris gave Fred driving directions that took him right past the house, and he counted on Suzie to recognize it. Leaving his cane in the corner was a wink-and-a-nod to Fred and Doris that it was him that sent them there, even if they were going to have to buy the house with their own money. Kris wasn’t prisoner at the old folks’ home; he came and went as he pleased. That included skulking around Long Island at night to make a little miracle happen.
So who was Kris Kringle? Major John Q. Public, US Army (retired), paying off the sins of his time in WWI by becoming the world’s greatest samaritan.