In perhaps one of the greatest examples of parental avoidance, when, in 1897, eight-year old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father if there really was a Santa Claus, he suggested she write to The New York Sun for clarification.
“If you see it in The Sun, it’s so,” he told her.
Fortunately for posterity, Virginia’s letter landed in the hands of Francis Pharcellus Church, a war correspondent during the Civil War. In his response, Church treats Santa more as concept than figure. What is most valuable, he suggests, lies not in the contents of boxes and bags but in intangibles and mysteries, enduring questions for which easy answers prove elusive. What remain and sustain are the capacities for curiosity and faith, hope and love.
In elevating the question to the realm of the philosophical, Church provided an answer for the ages. His piece subsequently became the most reprinted editorial in the English language.
Who are we to argue with history? Here again are the original letter and response:
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 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?
VIRGINIA O’HANLON. 115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] 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 childlike 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 they 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 may 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.
I first posted this here on December 25, 2015 and originally wrote it on December 25, 2012 for Westport Hamlethub.