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The History of Christmas: Day 11 – Is There a Santa Claus? (1897 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 11: Is There A Santa Claus? – 1897 CE

 

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In 1823, a poem, written by noted theologian and biblical scholar Clement Clark Moore for his family a year earlier, almost single-handedly rekindled the celebration of Christmas. Moore’s “right jolly old elf” with his “miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer” ignited a conundrum of “to believe or not to believe” that stays with us 185 years later. They called him “Father Christmas,” “Kris Kringle,” and “Saint Nicholas” in Europe, but Americans decided upon a mispronunciation of the Dutch, “Sinterklaas,” which came out “Santa Claus.”

Over the past seventy years, Santa Claus has taken on the specter of Christmas secular. To my mind, this is an unfair demotion for the old elf who has brought so much joy to young children over the same time-frame. The Christian/secular argument, however, is totally lost in the single-most asked question every Christmas season – “Do you believe in Santa Claus?

*

Francis Pharcellus Church, lead editor of the New York Sun on the 20th of September, 1897, sat in his office busy with his work when he was interrupted by a knock at his door.

“Come in.”

A young mail room clerk entered and handed him a folded piece of paper.

“Sorry to bother you, Frank. This just came in downstairs and the Boss heard about it and wants you to write an answer for tomorrow’s editorial section.”

Frank looked up at the regulator.

“It’s pretty close to deadline, John. Are you sure he wants this for tomorrow’s paper?”

“Yes sir. He says it’s very important and if you have any questions whatsoever, to call him immediately.”

As the clerk turned and disappeared out the door, Frank looked at the postmark on the envelope clipped to the folded sheet of paper. It was from 95th street in the city. Unfolding the paper, he read the childish scrawl:

Dear Editor – I am 8 years old. Some of my 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 115 West Ninety-fifth Street

Church, son of a Baptist minister, set the letter down and looked back at the clock. He realized the importance of being truthful in his answer. He also realized the scrutiny his answer would be given, not just by the children of New York, but by the church affiliated readers of the Sun. He drew a deep breath and slipped a sheet of paper into his Remington. Stopping first to consider his wording, he began to type:

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:

He then typed out young Virginia’s letter. Stopping to sharpen his thoughts, he began his 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 which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little.

He decided not just to draw parallels and answer the child with abstract ideas. He felt it best to face the issues head on.

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 should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Then he waxed philosophical.

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.

After which he dealt with issues of reality by contrasting the seen versus the unseen world.

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 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.

He drew from his religious background to support his answer as an issue of fundamental faith.

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 man, 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.

He closed from a position of strength.

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 article appeared in the next day’s issue of the Sun. His words, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” have gone down in history as one of the most profound answers to a question ever asked by a child.

*

Clement Clark Moore’s description of Christmas Eve became the example of how Christmas would be celebrated in the United States. He put together traditions that started thousands of years ago, united them with eight reindeer (a first), and brought the celebration of Christmas into the modern world. Christmas, you see, has always been more of a secular celebration – even though its roots grow deep into various religious beliefs.  And do I believe in Santa Claus? An empathic “YES” answers that question! I believe in the tinsel, the gift giving, the feast, and most importantly, the joy and fun that Christmas brings to everyone, no matter how it is celebrated.

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