“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family! [REVISED and CORRECTED!]

(The Introduction is here.; Chapter I is here.;Chapter 2 is here.)

 Kris takes Santa’s throne

Kris’s rave reviews as Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade are so good,  Doris hires him play Santa at Macy’s flagship New York City store on 34th Street. He agrees, which is strange, when you think about how busy he should be at this time of year, supervising the elves and all. If he really is Santa, or even if he thinks he is, taking the job in New York is irresponsible.

His supervisor gives him a list of toys to “push”—toys that are overstocked. “Now, you’ll find that a great many children will be undecided as to what they want for Christmas. When that happens, you suggest one of these items,” Kris is told. “You understand?”

Kris says he understands, but later makes it clear in his comments to a co-worker, that he has no intention of “pushing” the merchandise.:

“Imagine…making a child take something it doesn’t want…just because he bought too many of the wrong toys.That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years!”

That being the case, there is exactly one thing Kris needs to do. He needs to quit. What he cannot do, and must not do, and has a clear ethical obligation not to do, is to accept a job when he has no intention of doing what the job requires. This is a sales job. If Kris doesn’t want to sell, then he will be accepting a pay check under false pretenses. This isn’t noble conduct, as the film would have you believe. It’s unethical conduct. It’s wrong.

Kris needs to put himself on his own naughty list.

Employer loyalty is not Kris’s thing…

On his first shift, a mother whispers to Kris, as Macy’s Santa Claus, not to promise Peter, the little boy on his lap, that he’ll get a toy fire engine for Christmas. “Nobody has any,” she says. Kris  ignores her request (do we see a pattern here?) and tells the boy he’ll get his wish. Mom is hacked-off, but Kris informs her that another store, presumably one that the mother wasn’t aware of or hadn’t checked,  has what she’s looking for, and at a great price, too. Mom is amazed, but grateful, and trots off to “Schoenfeld’s” on Lexington Avenue.

This is just the next step in Kris’s betrayal. The situation is exactly what he he was instructed to prepare for. “Oh, Santa has a much better gift in mind for you, Peter. You’re been such a good boy this year, what if Santa brings you a new toy cement mixer truck that mixes real cement! You’ll be the only one of your friends who has one! Ho Ho Ho!” (Actually, I had a truck like that when I was Peter’s age, and I liked it a lot better than a fire truck…)

Now, he’s not only not pushing Macy’s toys, he’s sending customers right out of Macy’s to another store! What else will Mom buy while she’s there that she otherwise would have bought at Macy’s?

Let’s pause a bit to ponder exactly what Kris, who we later learn, but now only suspect, thinks he’s really Santa Claus, thinks the iconic role consists of.  Kids ask him for stuff, he sends the parents to buy it, and his function on Christmas Eve is…what, exactly? If he isn’t providing the toys, he doesn’t need a sack, or a sleigh, or flying reindeer. He doesn’t need a workshop or elves, if everything a kid wants is at Gimbels or another store. And if the job is for Santa to let parents in first world countries do his job for him, and he handles poor children elsewhere, why the hell is he hanging around Macy’s?

But I digress.  Peter’s mother is touched and impressed with Santa’s apparently ethical, non-capitalistic conduct and, flushed with gratitude, tells Shellhammer, the head of the toy department, that she will now become a loyal Macy’s customer….after she buys the fire truck elsewhere. She assumes that Santa’s shopping consultant role is a store policy.

This is moral luck, Kris didn’t care whether his tip to the woman benefited Macy’s or not; it just did. Then Shellhammer overhears Kris as he excalates: a little girl wants ice skates, and Macy’s has ice skates, but he tells her mother to buy the skates at Gimbel’s, Macy’s arch rival, because their skates are better.

Coca-Cola has fired employees in the past for drinking a Pepsi.

Meanwhile, Fred Gailey, still lusting after Doris, takes the young Susan to see Santa. This would seem to contravene Doris’s explicit wishes: if she doesn’t want her daughter being enchanted by the Santa Claus myth, why is he doing this? In fact, he is trying to undermine Doris. His belief that her child rearing theories are harmful may be 100% right, but they are none of his business. This is a minor equivalent of trying to indoctrinate a neighbor’s child into a new religion or culture behind the parent’s back.

Doris catches Fred in his attempted counter-Doris mission, and tells him that she expects him to respect her wishes. In the process, she confirms his suspicion that its her own disillusionment with her broken romance  with Susan’s father that is making her inoculate her daughter against illusions, hope, and idealism, which is what her campaign amounts to. Her reaction, however, when she blurts out a direct reference to her ex- is telling:

“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…

…and she stops, embarrassed. Gailey says, “We were talking about Suzie, not about you.” So Doris knows, or should know, exactly what she’s doing,and should know it’s wrong.

Susan’s skepticism about Santa is shaken when she sees Kris speak Dutch to a little girl from the Netherlands. Hmmm. Wasn’t Kris Kringle Dutch? Kris is on a lucky streak, leaving the audience to wonder what would have happened if the little girl was from Mongolia. Alarmed that Kris’s verisimilitude has pulled Susan into–in her mother’s view—a dangerous  fantasy,  Doris asks him to tell Susan that he is not Santa. He refuses.

Ethically, this is a dilemma. She is asking him to lie to a little girl, from Kris’s perspective, since he sincerely believes that he is Santa Claus. (I suppose he could be a method actor: Daniel Day Lewis, on the set of “Lincoln,” reportedly insisted that he was Lincoln) refuses. Now what? She has a conflict of interest. Macy’s doesn’t care whether he’s a brilliant Santa portrayer  or deluded–he’s a hit.  Doris regards him as a threat to her indoctrination of her daughter.  She decides to fire him, but she is biased in too many ways to be capable of an objective decision.

Before she can can Kris however, R. H. Macy himself calls her and Shellhammer for an audience. (Aside: Rowland Hussey Macy died in 1877, 70 years before the film. Showing him still alive is kind of creepy, making Macy seem like the immortal, rotting castle owner in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” The Macy family had sold its ownership of the company in 1895) Doris and the toy department manager are getting  a bonus! Ah! Money makes Doris abandon her principles, and resolves her conflict.

Now Macy directs that sending customers to Gimbels and other stores is going to be the new store policy, creating good will.  We see Mr. Gimbel presiding over an emergency meeting: the Gimbel’s Department store won’t be outdone; he directs that his staff be directed to show that Gimbel’s puts Christmas spirit over profit. It would now send customers to other stores if necessary, even Macy’s.

There really was a Mr. Gimbel when “Miracle on 34th Street” was made. Bernard Gimbel, head of the Gimbel’s chain and the latest in the line that began with the store’s founder,  Adam Gimbel in 1842.  As it turned out, Bernard Gimbel did have a heart and placed people above profit, once he had a little nudge. He attended an early performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway in 1949. The plight of Willy Loman, an aging traveling salesman being pressured out of the only employment he had ever known,  shattered Gimbel. He was filled with guilt and remorse: his company had fired loyal employees who had become “too old,” just like Willy. After a sleepless night, he called his managers together in a real life emergency meeting, and told them and all of his stores that announced a new and, for the times, a unique policy. There would be no more firing of over-age employees.

So far, so good for Kris. But his luck is about to run out.

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2 thoughts on ““Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family! [REVISED and CORRECTED!]

  1. There’s another dimension to Kris’ handling of the Gimbel’s Switch. Peter’s mom psssts to Kris that Macy’s doesn’t carry the fire engine, that “nobody” has them. I can’t imagine why she would say that if she hasn’t checked the ads and the stores themselves. Nevertheless, when Kris pulls out an ad for Gimbel’s and shows her that the competitor carries the item, she seems surprised. He shows her an ad that proves that someone carries the item she was certain couldn’t be found…so did she not check the stores or ads at all? If she didn’t, how could she have been so sure that the toy couldn’t be found?

    Did she not want to buy the fire engine for Peter? Does it cost too much? Does she not like toys that will likely cause Peter to be too loud? Was she dumped by a fireman and now forbids Peter, a la Doris and Susan, from having anything to do with first responders? Is it possible that she is just telling Santa that they don’t exist anywhere so she doesn’t have to buy it for her son? She was pretty upset when Kris told Peter he would get it.

    I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had some experience working with the public. While working at McDonald’s during college, there were many parents who didn’t want to have to buy their children Happy Meals or desserts and would expect us to back up claims to their child that we were out. You would be amazed how often parents want store and restaurant employees to lie to their children. The child wants an ice cream cone and the parent says, aloud, in front of the cashier, “No, they don’t have those here”.

    Now, here’s the dilemma. Does a fast food employee do what the boss would want and say, “Oh, yes, we actually do have ice cream cones!”? After all, it’s possible the parent has made a mistake and really doesn’t know they serve ice cream cones here. It’s also very possible the parent just doesn’t want to buy the kid a cone, is lying to them and will become very angry at the cashier for revealing this information. What is the ethical thing to do when you know the customer is telling the child something that isn’t true, know that your boss would want you to correct that information in the hopes of getting a sale and suspect that doing so will get you a tongue lashing because now the customer HAS TO buy an ice cream for the child (for lack of the ability to say, “No” to the kid, I guess.)?

    On the other hand, Peter’s mom seems delighted at the service Kris has performed for her so it doesn’t appear that she was trying to avoid having to buy the toy. But it could’ve happened that way. Since it didn’t, better service would have been handing Peter’s mom a fire engine – He IS Santa Claus, after all – because…

    Ads mean nothing. Merchandise sells out all the time, even if the store isn’t trying to pull a fast one. Just because a store has something in an ad doesn’t mean that it will still be available when you get there to purchase it, especially during the biggest shopping season of the year. What if Peter’s mom had already been to Gimbel’s that day and found that, despite the advertisement, they were sold out of the fire engine? Kris is lucky she didn’t bat him over the head with the flyer, complain that she was just at Gimbel’s, was told the fire engine is completely out, ad or no ad, and to stop contradicting her in front of her child? Or what if the relieved mother makes a special trip to Gimbel’s only to find out that the fire engine is gone, despite the ad?

    Would she still be a regular Macy’s customer then? Like you wrote above, it’s just moral luck that it apparently worked out since we didn’t get a scene where angry customers march on Macy’s with pitchforks and torches because their Santa Claus sent them to competitors for sold-out merchandise.

    Anyway, these are just a few thoughts based on my own customer service experience from back in the day. I doubt it’s changed much and has probably gotten worse. Opening up cans of worms when trying to be helpful is an occupational hazard most people who work with the public have to deal with regularly.

    I guess my point is that Kris took a big risk giving Peter’s Mom this information. In the real world, Mr. Macy (the original or his successor) would probably have fired Kris for violating store policy and for sending customers to the competition, regardless of how old Kris was.

    Happy New Year!

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