Fr Kevin Hegarty
NEWSPAPER editorials are usually weighty missives that sometimes influence public policy. However, arguably the most famous one ever was inspired by a child’s question.
In 1897 Virginia O’Hanlon, an eight-year-old girl from Manhattan, New York, asked her father the question that every parent secretly dreads: “Is there a Santa Claus?”. Some of her school friends had told her that he did not exist.
Her Dad was understandably evasive in his reply. He suggested that she direct her question to The New York Sun, the newspaper the family read every day.
The newspaper ran a ‘Question and Answer’ column. It was the O’Hanlon family custom to write to it when seeking verification on any topic.
So Virginia penned the following letter; “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?”
The letter was handed to Francis P Church, a veteran journalist in the paper. He had reported on the American Civil War for The New York Times. For the remainder of his life he was deeply affected by the atrocities he had witnessed during it.
The son of a Baptist Minister, it was customary for him to write The Sun editorials on matters of theology, philosophy and spirituality.
Asked to write an editorial in reply to Virginia’s letter, he first bristled at the request believing it beneath his dignity.
He gave in ,however, and wrote a reply that has struck a chord at Christmas time for over a century:
“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 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, 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 was 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 Clause! 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 red 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 or unseeable in the world.
“You tear apart the the baby’s rattle and see what make 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, poetry, love and romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Oh, Virginia in all the world there is nothing else real and abiding.
“No Santa Claus? Thank God, he lives and lives forever, a thousand years from now, nay 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
I doubt if the eight-year-old Virginia understood his arguments but she must have been impressed by his constant re-iteration that there is a Santa Clause. For adults the piece telescopes the transcendent nature of human life. For Christians it resonates with the joy, hope and meaning which the birth of the God-child brought into the world. The people who walked in darkness has seen a great light. May you all have a joy-filled Christmas.