Yes, There Is a Santa Claus
what a well-loved editorial can tell us about the truth of the holiday season
One of the best Christmas stories ever written begins not in Ebeneezer Scrooge’s counting house or in a Bethlehem stable, but in the inquisitive mind of an 8-year-old girl in 19th-century New York. And, rather than gothic fantasy or religious miracles, this story is about the search for truth in an uncertain world.
Maybe that’s why I like this story so much: I’m the father of a couple of inquisitive kids; I appreciate a good conundrum; and I’m a former newspaper editorial writer. Did I mention one of the heroes of the tale is an editor?
The story in question is the legendary 1897 New York Sun editorial headlined, “Is There a Santa Claus?” It was written by one of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, whose 19th century prose was as artful as his 19th century mustache was magnificent. (Seriously, look up his picture!) Most famous for its declaration that, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Church’s editorial was written in response to this heartfelt inquiry from Virginia O’Hanlon:
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?
In an era when all-caps accusations of “FAKE NEWS!” undermine the media’s credibility, it’s heart-warming (for me, at least) to think of a time when a father could point his daughter to a media outlet and declare that it would only print the truth. If my son or his classmates here in Eau Claire sought to answer such a question, who would they turn to? Would it be Volume One? (As you’ll see later in this Holiday Handbook, we are pretty tight with Mr. Kringle.) Maybe the Leader-Telegram? Perhaps WQOW or WEAU?
More than likely, they’d ask a teacher or parent – nothing like getting put on the spot about the Santa question! – or search for the answer online. Maybe, like Justin Vernon, Santa has done an AMA on Reddit. Or maybe the kids would just turn to YouTube, where searching the phrase “Is there a Santa Claus?” turns up plenty of videos, many of them versions of a song from Elf: The Musical (which, incidentally, the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre is staging Nov. 15-17). The song’s title turns the question into an affirmation: “There is a Santa Claus.”
This is exactly the sentiment taken in the editorial reply to Virginia’s letter: Santa Claus “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.”
Church’s response to the Santa question is philosophical and metaphorical. Then, as today, it was meant more for the adults than the 8-year-olds in the audience. A straightforward answer to Virginia’s question wouldn’t have been nearly as emotionally or intellectually satisfying (and, let’s be honest, a “yes” or “no” answer wouldn’t have filled the necessary space on the editorial page that day).
A cynic could certainly slam Church’s editorial as “FAKE NEWS” – journalism is supposed to be about the truth, right? – yet I choose to believe that his response taps into a deeper truth about the holiday season in general and Santa Claus in particular. In 1897, as today, the news was filled with violence and tragedy. Recognizing the generosity, joy, and love embodied by St. Nicholas can help us recalibrate our perceptions – not to ignore the bad in the world, but to temper our anxieties with a fuller celebration of the good in the world, which often goes unappreciated and unseen. As Church wrote, “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.”