Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Cover of "Miracle on 34th Street (Special...
Cover via Amazon

Although not as badly wallpapered over December television as It’s a Wonderful Life, nor anywhere as threatening, this is arguably the most beloved of all Christmas movies. Maureen O’Hara and eight-year-old Natalie Wood arch their eyebrows over a department store Santa’s claim to being the real Kris Kringle, and a courtroom battle over his sanity makes believers out of us all. You’ll get more than just a holiday heartwarming; this movie serves up a hearty dish of late-1940s New York City nostalgia, since the story centers around Macy’s Department Store (which still takes up an entire city block after most of its competitors have vanished, and which still hosts a certain Thanksgiving Day parade). Has any era in our lifetimes signaled a sense of holiday community as potently as the postwar years? (It’s in those years that most classic Christmas songs were popularized.) The film is so powerfully familiar you probably can’t believe Edmund Gwenn or John Payne in anything else, but try nevertheless to remain dry-eyed as Gwenn, at the head of a crowded “meet Santa” line of shoppers, sings a song in Dutch to a war orphan. Caution for family viewing: if your kids still set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, their world might be upended by the suggestion that believing in Santa Claus could land you in Bellevue.

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