Psyching Out Christmas | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation

The antipathy between psychology and Christmas

December 15, 2014
by Terry Stawar
| Reprints

As a psychologist, I‘m afraid that that there may be more than a little antipathy between my discipline and the Christmas season in general and Santa Claus in particular.  

Gary Kustis, an Ohio-based organizational psychologist, says that many people’s introduction to psychology as a profession is the movie, "A Miracle on 34th Street." In this 1947 Christmas classic, the film’s antagonist Granville Sawyer is a psychologist at Macy’s Department Store,  who is asked to evaluate their new Santa, Kris Kringle. The dour and deceitful Sawyer takes an immediate dislike to the relentlessly jolly Kris, concluding that he is delusional, with “maniacal tendencies,” especially when his delusion is challenged. 

The creepy Sawyer, was also providing some freelance semi-amateur psychotherapy to Macy’s young stock boy, Alfred. Sawyer had convinced Alfred that his desire to impersonate Santa and distribute toys at the YMCA stemmed from an unresolved guilt complex and an Oedipal hatred for his father. Evidently Sawyer was an unrepentant Freudian. blogger Ariel Herrlich maintains that while it is probably alright for Kris to impersonate Santa, because he really is Santa Claus, Albert’s preoccupation is actually “kind of creepy” and inappropriate. Never-the-less, in the film, Kris takes great exception to Sawyer’s meddling with Alfred’s psyche and confronts him, questioning his qualifications and competence and threatens to expose him to Mr. Macy. The sneering Sawyer so infuriates Kris that he ends up bonking him upside the head with his cane. Kustis says, “It doesn’t bode well for your profession when even Santa wants to open a can of whoop-ass on you.” 

Sawyer retaliates by getting Kris committed to Bellevue’s Psychiatric ward. Mr. Macy is called as a witness in the sanity hearing, where he says to Sawyer, in a contemptuous voice dripping with sarcasm, “Psy-cho-lo-gist! Where'd you graduate from, a correspondence school? You're fired.”

My wife Diane, who is also in the field, and I both occasionally enjoy pronouncing the word “psychologist” in the same venomous manner as Mr. Macy. For example, if I come up with some half-ass theory to account for something that she considers preposterous, she’s likely to say to say to me, “Psy-cho-lo-gist! Where'd you graduate from, a correspondence school?"

Psychological assessments of St. Nick

Unfortunately the Santa-Psychology conflict is not confined to just this movie. Around this time of the year, it is not unusual for psychological assessments of St. Nick to appear in the popular media as well as professional journals. A newspaper article entitled: “A Psychological Profile of Santa Claus,” written by Akron school psychologist E. Bard, illustrates this genre.

Bard theorized that Santa might be referred for psychological assessment because “he laughs all the time, gives away all that he has, never seems to be depressed, but will only work one day a year.” Santa could be described as having “post-juvenile obesity syndrome” and alcoholism might be suspected considering “the jovial nature of the client,” as well as “the glowing nose of his pet reindeer.” Bard speculated that Santa’s black gloves and rugged backpack could suggest “unconscious sadomasochistic involvement,” while his “long soft head cover with white rabbit fur and feminine looking rouged cheeks might be interpreted as “sexual identity confusion.”   



Terry Stawar

President/CEO (LifeSpring, Inc.)

Terry Stawar


Terry L. Stawar, EdD, is President and CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems, a community behavioral...

The opinions expressed by Behavioral Healthcare Executive bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.