On September 21, 1897, the New York Sun published what would become the most reprinted English-language editorial in history: a letter from the editor-in-chief, Francis Church, that argues for the existence of Santa Claus. Before you jump to conclusions about why the NY Sun is no longer around, know that Church was responding to a letter he received from a little girl, Virginia O’Hanlon, which reads as follows:
Dear Editor–I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
If there were no Santa, Church says, there would be no love. There would be no poetry. Francis Church’s response to Virginia’s letter reminds us of what Christmas is actually about: unity. If I must believe in Santa as much as I believe in poetry, then I will. He is equally important in the transmission of human sentiment: a figure that children can understand, that can help them feel warmth, that can make them see goodness. Poetry also reminds us to be good. Yes, it can be used to point out some horrifying flaws about human nature, but it usually does so for the purpose of reflection. The idea of Santa’s nice or naughty list serves the same purpose. Santa Claus, poetry, human commonality, are they not all the same thing?
Children cannot understand poetry at the same level as adults, but neither can adults fully understand Santa Claus. Church’s letter reminds us to be humble, and proposes that a child’s imagination is perhaps more informed than an adult’s skepticism. I haven’t received a gift from Santa in a long time (though I continue to receive Women’s Health, a magazine to which I did not subscribe, and for which I perhaps have Santa to thank.) What I do receive every day, however, is a morning reflection. I start every day with a cup of coffee and a new poem, with introspection. I start every day imagining the world in a different light. Church states, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.” What propels me out of bed in the morning? I like to laugh, and I like to read. I like to feel, which is, after all, what makes us human. I like to imagine myself in another story, and then another. I like to see all the stories the world is capable of–things that do not happen before my eyes, but that are real nonetheless. I rise from bed every day to a new world.
What if there was a man who could travel the globe in one night granting wishes? What if he chose to spend his life planning out the happiness of others and buying lots of energy shots for December 24th? If you were granted the ability to fulfill the duties of Santa Claus, would you be able to do it? Would you let the magic continue? Perhaps the only reason we grow out of our belief in Santa Claus is that we ourselves cannot envision selflessness. But we still believe, I think. We teach our children to believe, and we hope that they will not stop. Tim O’Brien said in his great novel The Things They Carried, “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” Santa Claus is something real. We pray that we will never have to explain hurt or hate, or stop giving our children gifts in the name of Santa Claus, but we’re looking too hard. Santa has always been right there, in us wanting him to exist for others.
Here is the letter from Francis P. Clark to Virginia O’Hanlon, but also to all his readers–readers who probably believed in poetry, but not in Santa.
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.