There are certain rites of passage we humans must endure as we race through life. The first - and in some ways the most traumatic – is learning there is no Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole and distributes gifts at Christmas to good little boys and girls.
This revelation generally occurs in the third grade. However, some precocious children discover it at age seven and some hold stubborn to the belief until the fourth grade. I was eight years old when a scornful girl in my class forced reality upon me. I had suspected as much but was unwilling to let go of a cherished fantasy.
Virginia O'Hanlon was similarly confronted in December 1897 when she was eight. She went to her father, Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, a New York surgeon, seeking the truth.
The good father could not bring himself to be the agent of disillusionment - as Virginia related 36 years later.
"Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, " said Virginia, “for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn't any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.
"It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word, or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the Question And Answer column in The Sun.
"Father would always say, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it's so, ’ and that settled the matter.
"‘Well, I'm just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth, ’ I said to Father.
"He said, ‘Go ahead, Virginia. I'm sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does. '"
* * *
Being a determined little girl, Virginia went right to work on her letter. Slowly, with great care, Virginia printed her request - proudly using “big and little letters" as she had been taught. Dr. O'Hanlon mailed it the next morning.
Virginia's letter was delivered to the New York Sun's editorial writer, Francis Pharcellus Church, who was assigned all controversial assignments requiring hard thought. Church had covered the Civil War as a young reporter for The New York Times and thereafter worked 20 years for The Sun. His motto was, “Endeavor to clear your mind of can't. " The task of answering a little girl's anguished plea for truth would require all his professional integrity.
His reply on The Sun's editorial page was an immortal, literary gem which journalists hope to compose at least once in their career - but seldom do.
* * *
Church wrote anonymously in the “editorial we" tense - as is the custom of editorialists. “We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
"‘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.
"Virginia, your little friends are wrong.THE REST OF THE STORY
"They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical 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 our 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 external 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 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 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 men, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.
"Only faith, 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 lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. "
The editorial was an instant sensation. It went out on the Associated Press wire and was reprinted throughout the country - without credit to Church. Shortly after that Church married, had no children and died in April 1906.
The Sun reprinted the famous piece it every Christmas until the paper folded in 1949. Only then was Church revealed to be the author. When Virginia grew up she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College, a Master's from Columbia University and in 1912 became a teacher in the New York City school system.
She married and had several children. During her 47 years as a teacher, she received a steady stream of inquiries about her part in the famous letter. She answered them all by sending the writers a nicely printed copy of Church's editorial.
Virginia died May 13, 1971, at age 81 - still convinced there is a Santa Claus.
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