A Christmas “Miracle”

With thanks to The Friendly Atheist, which published this essay here.


I found one! I found one! I found an atheist mom on TV!

Yes, I am one of those minority types hungry for representation in mainstream entertainment, watching avidly to see how, say, Dr. House does or doesn’t ring true as an atheist. And also watching avidly just because, goodness, there he is, saying unsayable things like, “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” Oh, House.

But of course most atheists are not genius misanthropes. Some of them are gorgeous, high-powered attorneys with perfect wardrobes. Alicia Florrick, a.k.a. The Good Wife, is an unapologetic atheist, a fact that occasionally becomes a plot point, as it has during this season’s run for State’s Attorney. In an excruciating interview with a pastor (presented as a necessary step in her campaign process), she tries neither to lie nor to confirm that she’s an atheist: “Well, I can’t say for certain that God doesn’t exist,” she says, and, “Recently, I have looked for answers outside of myself.” Oh, lawyers.

Alicia parents two children as well as she can in those form-fitting suits, but she is not an atheist mom. She shows no interest in sharing her worldview with her children; in fact, her daughter is an evangelizing young Christian. I suspect that Grace (Grace!) is a fervent believer to allow us to continue to sympathize with her mom.Alicia and Grace

It’s OK if a grown-up has doubts about God, even if she doesn’t believe. It’s not so OK if she raises her kids that way. “Bones” Brennan on Bones is a staunch atheist, too, but turns out to be “open-minded” enough to have her daughter baptized.


So imagine my surprise at finding an atheist mom in a classic Christmas movie.

OK, they don’t actually say she’s an atheist. But make no mistake: Miracle on 34th Street (1947) is about faith in God, not just in Santa Claus. The word “believe” occurs 35 times in the script; “faith,” 5. The mother, Doris Walker, is career woman, a divorced single parent, and a nonbeliever.Mrs. Walker & Susan

The fact that she doesn’t believe in Santa does not distinguish her from the rest of the adults. The film, as you may recall, culminates in a courtroom hearing during which (1) the State of New York concedes the existence of Santa Claus, and (2) the kindly old man we know as Kris Kringle is declared to be the real Santa. But, at least until the final moment of the movie, none of the film’s grownups believe it’s true. When they say they do, they are clearly lying—either for political reasons (the Judge) or commercial ones (Mr. Macy) or because they don’t want their children to know they lied to them (the District Attorney).

In all these cases, the characters are clearly lying, and in all these cases, it’s the right thing to do.. Ms. Walker, on the other hand, doesn’t lie to her daughter, Susan, and that’s what’s wrong with her. Her neighbor and potential love interest, Mr. Gailey, establishes this early on (yes, he’s “Gailey” and fun; she’s a no-nonsense, down-to-earth “Walker”)

MR. GAILEY: No Santa Claus, no fairy tales . . . no fantasies of any kind, is that it?

MRS. WALKER: That’s right. I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children and not have them growing up believing in a lot of legends and myths like . . . Santa Claus, for example.

Later, when she’s explaining to Mr. Gailey why she’s upset with him for taking her daughter to see Santa, we find out why she’s so insistent on this philosophy.

MRS. WALKER: By filling them full of fairy tales they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of a reality. They keep waiting for Prince Charming to come along. And when he does, he turns out to be a . . .

MR. GAILEY: We were talking about Susie, not about you.

Aha! Turns out it was her disillusionment with her ex-husband that turned her into an advocate for truth at all costs. Those costs, by the way, are completely trumped up. Little Susan doesn’t just not believe in fairy tales; she’s never heard them (she doesn’t know who Jack is, of Beanstalk fame). She’s so literal-minded, she can’t play with kids her own age:

SUSAN: They were in the basement playing zoo and all of them were animals. When I came down, Homer (he was supposed to be the zookeeper) he said, “What kind of an animal are you?” and I said, “I’m not an animal, I’m a girl.” And he said, “Only animals allowed here. Goodbye!” So I came upstairs.

KRIS: Why didn’t you tell him you were a lion or a bear?

SUSAN: Because I’m not a bear or a lion.

Meanwhile, her mother “hasn’t really believed in anything for years,” according to Mr. Gailey.” Well, that IS sad. No wonder kindly old Kris Kringle says, “Those two are lost souls.”

Of course, Mrs. Walker, has believed in many things—not least, in telling her daughter the truth—just nothing for which she has no evidence. Faith in something unprovable (or even patently untrue, like Santa) is in this movie equated with faith in people, faith in love, the capacity for hope.

Again and again, Mrs. Walker’s insistence on logic and evidence is portrayed as dashing her daughter’s hopes. Little Suzie overhears Santa speaking Dutch to a little immigrant orphan, which makes her think, maybe . . . But when she runs to tell her mother, Mrs. Walker replies, “Susan, I speak French, but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.” Ouch.

Even weirder is the fact that the movie equates belief with imagination, with playing pretend. When Kris Kringle teaches Suzie to use her imagination and pretend to be a monkey, we are meant to think he’s opening up a whole world in which a child could believe in Santa Claus. Starting her sleigh down that slippery slope. But when you imagine things, you know they’re not true. That’s the fun of it. Believing Santa (or God, for that matter) is real is entirely different from pretending he’s real.

The arguments may be illogical, and Mrs. Walker may be a bit of a straw mom (she doesn’t even sing to her child, for goodness sake), but Miracle on 34th Street has a lot to recommend it. Kris Kringle is willing to work as a Macy’s Santa because he’s fed up with the commercialism of the holiday, and although the solution is in itself laughably commercial (the big department stores help shoppers find the right presents even if it’s at another store), the characterization of competing retail giants and their marketing departments still has a nice satirical kick. So too the political calculations on display in the courtroom scene.

Mrs. Walker, for all her tragic flaws, loves her child and excels at her job. Remarkably, the movie’s happy ending does not require her to quit that job, or imply (as does the 1994 remake) that she should have more kids.

It does, however, require that she see the light. That she renounce her “silly common sense” (her words), for herself and for her daughter.

SUSAN: Mommy said if things don’t turn out just the way you want them to the first time, you’ve still got to believe and I kept believing. You were right, Mommy! Mr. Kringle is Santa Claus!

Susan runs off, leaving Mr. Gailey to ask, wonderingly, “You told her that?” And when Mrs. Walker nods, he gives her a grand, 1940s Hollywood kiss. Just like that—just by reversing her position on the truth and teaching her daughter to believe—Mrs. Walker becomes lovable.

It comforts me to imagine what House might say about this. And I say that knowing perfectly well he’s not real.

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What God Can Learn from Santa, or How to Lose Belief But Keep the Gifts

Click below for the recorded version of my first PechaKucha night, at the Opalka Gallery, Albany, New York. PechaKucha is a presentation format with strict parameters: 20 slides, 20 seconds of narration for each. So if I seem to be speaking extra slowly or suspiciously quickly at certain points, that’s why.

Thank you, Jesse, for the musical assist. And thank you, Liz, for the original invitation.

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Grace for an Atheist Table

Thanksgiving table

As an atheist, I have always loved Thanksgiving. It’s the perfect holiday: national but not nationalistic, it celebrates consumption but not consumerism. And it provides all the benefits of a religious holiday (food! family! fellowship!) without reference to a Supreme Being.

Or so I thought. Until, curious, I looked up the facts — a terrible mistake if you want to leave your beliefs undisturbed. The origin of Thanksgiving is seriously, sincerely religious, more so than Christmas. Apparently New England colonists used to declare days of prayer in which to give thanks to God, and George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation—October 3, 1789—does just that. It recommends “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be… devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

OK, got it. No wiggle room there.

From “Whereas” to “in the year of our Lord 1789,” in 467 words, there are seven mentions of God as a noun, four as a pronoun, and five as a possessive adjective (“his”).

Where’s the food? The feast? The harvest? One word—“plenty”—will have to suffice.

Seventy-four years later, Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation began like this: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Ah, that’s more like it. But — wait — that’s shocking! The year that was drawing to a close was 1863, the bloodiest year of the Civil War. Those fruitful fields were the scene of gruesome, relentless slaughter: more than 100,000 men lost their lives in Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and Chickamauga alone. This would be like writing, mid-September 2001, “It’s been another beautiful week in New York City.”

But that’s the point of this call for gratitude: even in the midst of our great national horror, there is good, so much good. Lincoln’s proclamation—probably written by his Secretary of State, William Seward—is longer than Washington’s and refers to God less often, but does so far more pointedly: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God . . .”

And it goes on:

To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

That’s my heart he’s talking about. And my children’s hearts. (And possibly Lincoln’s; he was not known to be devout.) Of course, as an atheist, I don’t ever ascribe these gracious gifts to God; I never believed a supernatural being to be the source of the bounties that I enjoy.

And yet, like any other lucky soul, I am still “prone to forget” my many blessings and am “habitually insensible” to my own good fortune. I can use a day set aside now and then to make myself remember.

I could—with apologies to the Puritans—keep Thanksgiving but leave God and prayer out of it. Just because it began as a day of prayer doesn’t mean mine has to be. Atheists don’t have to thank God: they can thank their hosts (or welcome their guests), toast the cooks, and enjoy the food.

Maybe that would be enough for me if I didn’t have kids. But even though I don’t want my children to believe in God, I still want them to believe in blessings. Beauty. Wonder. Good fortune. Grace.

And have the words to talk about them.

So I have written a prayer, a few communal words that try to express not just passing emotion but universal truth. As an atheist who craves the comforts of religion, I do a lot of DIY: making new meaning of old holidays, making up my own holidays, trying (and trying again) to establish family rituals. Sometimes, to be honest, I get discouraged. Religious feeling depends so much on community: on the fact that the whole village recognizes the significance of a bar mitzvah, that everyone beside you in church knows the tune of the hymn. How can I possibly achieve that on my own?

Still, I think of the extraordinary bounties that my children and I enjoy, and I have to try.

If you like this prayer, please consider saying it before your Thanksgiving meal. Wherever you are, you’ll be saying it with us.

For the food.

For the sun and earth, farmer and cook,

We give thanks.

For family and friends.

For___________ [this is the interactive part, if you want it to be: the speaker of the prayer names person to the right, who says “and for ___________,” naming person to the right, and so on, till back to the speaker; or the speaker could just name everyone]

We give thanks.

For the time to gather and the leisure to sit and the spirit to celebrate

We give thanks.

We pause to remember those who cannot be with us today

And those who live more in famine than in feast.

May our sense of good fortune overshadow our daily troubles

And yet cast light on the struggles of our neighbors.

For life’s great bounty and the will to share it

We give thanks.

And in gratitude, we eat.



I am grateful to The Friendly Atheist, where this post first appeared.


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