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The retail world at the heart of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ no longer exists

Although its themes may be timeless, retail shopping has been completely transformed

Actors John Payne, Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood stand before a Christmas tree in director George Seaton's film, “Miracle on 34th Street.” (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
7 min

George Seaton’s 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street” is a Christmas classic frequently described as “timeless.” However, the central setting of the film, Macy’s department store, and the role of Kriss Kringle as played by Edmund Gwenn, are tied to a very different era of shopping — one that no longer reflects what the public holiday experience looks like.

“Miracle on 34th Street” was set in Macy’s flagship department store in Manhattan. Filmed on location and with real customers, the movie reflected the crucial role played by department stores in American life in the 1940s.

Originally conceived as mass shopping centers where small businesses could retail under the same roof, department stores became grander over the first half of the 20th century, growing to include all manner of services beyond shopping and becoming vital hubs in cities. As historian Jan Whitaker has chronicled, department stores’ cultural importance came from the way they empowered White women and created a public, communal space for them. The stores had rooms set aside where women could sew clothing, write letters and more.

By the mid-20th century, department store shopping was a fixture of the urban experience for middle class White women, with women of color largely excluded. The exclusive communal experience sold in department stores as well as the products offered were integral to the aspirational and performative class dimensions of conspicuous consumption — a place where women could show that they had made it.

By shopping in these stores and spending time within them, a shopper could project the image of being higher class and able to afford the luxuries of this exclusive experience. Historian Daniel Boorstin termed department stores “palaces of consumption,” describing them as integral to the cultural architecture of their cities. These stores also enhanced the cachet of the brands they sold, as well as the services offered.

It was in this context that “Miracle on 34th Street” became a hit. Kringle is an old man who believes himself to be the real Santa Claus and who is hired on a whim to replace an inebriated impersonator in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Macy’s subsequently hires him to sit in the store and convince children that what they really want for Christmas are the toys the store had overstocked. But the order to tell children what they want appalls Kringle, and he takes it upon himself to listen to the children and tell their parents where to get the toys they actually desire — even if the better price or product is at a competitor’s store.

While the film’s surface-level dialogue claims to be against the commercialization of Christmas, department store executives still end up as its true heroes. Kringle’s “goodwill policy” of honesty becomes a record-shattering success and customer loyalty rises, prompting R.H. Macy to extol the new in-store Santa and declare Macy’s “the store with a heart.” Macy’s expands its policy across the country — prompting competitors such as Gimbels to follow suit.

By making the department stores the heroes, the film subverts its own anti-commercialist claims and bolsters the image of department stores as communal anchors, driven by good-hearted motives and hoping to better the lives of people in their communities. When the Macy’s store psychologist calls Kringle’s sanity into question and a legal battle ensues, Macy’s executives gets further good press, especially among children and parents, by firing the psychologist and proclaiming that they do fully believe in the authenticity of their Santa Claus.

Yet this movie, with department stores and their crucial societal role at its core, arrived in theaters just as the prestige and patronage of such shopping meccas began to slip.

Suburbanization drove the shift, as the middle class fled urban centers for the suburbs. That led to the rise of malls that were designed around bringing chain department stores to suburban areas. As malls began offering access to the large, brand-names once only available inside urban shopping centers, department stores lost their status as an exclusive class symbol. As business slumped, department stores had to eliminate the luxuries of the earlier communal experience.

The inexorable decline of department stores ignited by suburbanization has only picked up over time. That was reflected in John Hughes’s 1994 remake of “Miracle,” in which the relevance of the department store to the story is palpably diminished. Macy’s refused to allow its name in the remake, and Gimbels, once a luxury shopping giant, had shuttered in 1987. This prompted Hughes to create two fictional stores: the heroic Cole’s and the evil Shopper’s Express.

In small changes to the plot, Cole’s is in financial trouble and the executives at Shopper’s Express disparage Kringle and bring his sanity into question. These minor deviations change the story’s message.

The original movie painted all department store executives as the heroes coming together to spread the “goodwill policy” nationwide, as well as protecting the belief in Santa Claus. This reflected the revered position of department stores in communities. By 1994 however, with their place in society diminished, Hughes replaced this pro-department store message with one about brand loyalty and saving a department store in decline.

The rise of internet shopping right after the remake dealt a final blow to department stores — at least, as they exist today.

Urban department stores like the Macy’s depicted in “Miracle” are rapidly becoming a relic of the 19th- and 20th-centuries. In a recent Hart Research Associates Public Opinion Survey on shopping habits, only 7 percent of respondents answered that department stores would be their first or second choice of store for purchasing gifts this season. While the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic undoubtedly play a role in this low number, it is simply a more rapid continuation of the long trend dating back to the 1950s.

Yet, all is not lost for the malls to which department stores became tethered in the second half of the 20th century — ironically due to a lesson from the department store heyday chronicled in “Miracle.” While mall shopping has largely decreased, retail real estate developers have seen an increase in occupancy since the initial drop-off following the onset of the pandemic. And according to the Wall Street Journal, developers have seen a resurgence in foot traffic in higher-end malls over the past two years, even as “middle- and lower-quality malls” continue to struggle.

One factor at work: With department stores exiting, many of these malls are embracing the sort of communal services offered by the early-20th century department store experience. Malls that are enjoying a resurgence have invested in services outside of shopping such as entertainment experiences or medical clinics.

With the cultural significance of department stores drastically diminished, the ability of “Miracle on 34th Street” to resonate with Americans’ experiences of holiday shopping and visiting Santa wanes more every year.

The original “Miracle on 34th Street” was a timely film that represented on-screen a very real and crucial cultural and class dynamic that is no longer relevant in 2022. The aspirational class performance that department stores sold and the specific exclusive communal space that they provided are outdated references with little resonance for many modern audiences.

As department stores shutter, the rebranding of malls as communal spaces offering services outside of shopping opportunities may be a way to recapture some of the 1947 experience of visiting Santa Claus. In an ever-adapting commercial environment reacting to the economic and technological developments of consumer relations, department store Santas became mall Santas and may yet become something new as malls continue to evolve.

While the heart of “Miracle on 34th Street,” the ideas of believing in the magic of honesty and goodwill and in Kringle’s famous line “Christmas is not just a day — it’s a feeling,” remain timeless, the central cultural touchstones at the heart of the film have become antiquated. It may be time to retire “Miracle on 34th Street” from its “timeless” status until we reinvent the communal spaces that allowed it to resonate with Americans’ experiences.