"Yes, Virginia," wrote an editor of the New York Sun some 123 years ago, "there is a Santa Claus."
The statement is part of a response to what might fairly be described as the most famous letter to the editor in history. Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon of 115 West 95th St. had written to the publication at her father’s behest, seeking clarification and encouragement after some of her friends had told her Santa does not exist.
The response, which ran without attribution but was in fact written by editor and former Civil War correspondent Francis Pharcellus Church, has been reprinted, recited and adapted continually for the past century and a quarter. It stands as the most reprinted editorial in the history of English-language newspapers.
The reason for its enduring appeal is that Mr. Church’s well-considered response did much more than answer young Miss O’Hanlon’s direct question. In addition to offering an affirmation of Santa Claus’s existence, it also offered an inspiring rumination on love and hope and faith and generosity — things we are all inclined to consider and (hopefully) embrace during the festive season, and things that were apparently sorely needed in 1897, an era which the newspaperman referred to as "a cynical age."
One can’t help wondering how Mr. Church might describe the circa-2020 world. In the current environment of social-media saturation, echo-chamber misinformation, adversarial politics and anonymous online trolling and tirades, cynicism seems to be the baseline from which most public conversations devolve.
Were Mr. Church alive and responding today, the reaction would surely be different. Much, much, much different.
Rather than being applauded for proclaiming that Santa "exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist," it’s more likely he would be pilloried by online commentators for disseminating "fake news" and for promoting a secular seasonal persona aimed at diminishing the religious significance of the holiday.
It goes without saying that someone on a cable-news network would question Mr. Church’s qualifications for issuing such a response, and dismiss his attempt at kind encouragement as radical-leftist propaganda. There might even be an elected official in a very high office who, having earlier stated that Santa is a hoax, would suddenly recognize the jolly man’s popularity and quickly switch to saying he was the first to know Santa is real and there’s no one who thinks Santa is realer than he does.
How about agreeing to believe, at least for these festive few days in this woefully pandemic–plagued year, in hope, and in truth, and in science, and in kindness.
Mr. Church would soon learn that in the digital age, for every action there is an infinitely multiplied, intentionally distorted and calculatedly hurtful overreaction.
But for the good of all of us, we could only hope Mr. Church, holding fast to the relatively unsullied values of his cynical age rather than the toxic dictates of ours, would be undeterred, and that he would continue to encourage all the Virginia O’Hanlons in the world to keep believing in Santa because, for all the reasons laid out in his original missive, these are days in which we more than ever need things in which to believe.
How about agreeing to believe, at least for these festive few days in this woefully pandemic-plagued year, in hope, and in truth, and in science, and in kindness, and in the possibility that people with differing perspectives can still find their way toward polite conversation and perhaps even a sense of shared purpose that will allow us to more successfully navigate what we all pray will be a less-uncertain New Year?
If we could do that, we could believe in anything. Including Santa Claus, who, of course, is real.