Dear Virginia in the 19th Century

 Posted by on 18 December 2006 at 7:18 am  Uncategorized
Dec 182006

In 1897, Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the editor of The New York Sun:

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?

Frank P. Church wrote The Sun‘s famous, oft-reprinted answer:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be that 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 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 would have no enjoyment, except in the 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 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 the 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.

Church’s popular answer represents and advocates an utterly mystical worldview — one where man is low, little, helpless — one where the universe of science is barren, while what is really real and truly valuable is hidden behind the veil of the supernatural, accessible only by faith and feelings. It is a sustained attack on reality and reason, including the genuine spiritual values important to human life.

Understandably, those lacking a mystical bent (like me!) do not smile on this answer to Virginia. Several years back, after seeing Church’s response printed yet again, I thought about my young nieces and nephews and I wondered what better answer to Virginia I might send their way if the issue ever arose. Looking around the web, nothing I found fit the bill. Everything was either not focusing on the positive orientation to reason and reality that would be healthy, or was downright mean-spirited, and sometimes even destructive (as with those that urge Virginia to nurture thoughts of Santa as a vicious myth and sue her lying parents for deep psychic wounds caused by such child abuse).

So I decided to try my hand at an answer: same length, similar style and language, equivalent unapologetic advocacy of a worldview (but a healthy one this time) — ostensibly directed to a child in that age, but really designed to spark adult understanding in any age.

How would you answer Virginia? (I’ll share what I wrote next time.)

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