Of Christmas, Dads, daughters, and daring more

A concerned little eight-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York City’s third-most significant daily newspaper, The Sun, and a hasty response followed on Sept. 21, 1897, in an unsigned editorial.

In a surprising uncharacteristically cheerful response, The Sun’s resident cynic Francis Pharcellus Church, the brother of the paper’s publisher, put to ease a little girl’s heart, and answered Virginia’s question: Is there a Santa Claus?

Church’s response has since become history’s most widely known newspaper article. It has been reprinted in dozens of languages, appeared on posters and postage stamps; kitsch and coffee mugs. Books have been written about it, and movies made. Hundreds of other editorials and columns –– such as this one –– have refocused attention on the story at this time of year, every year.

“Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus,” wrote Church. “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.”

And he’s right. But in thinking about it, I’ve noticed that these fruits seldom occur on their own. Ultimately, they require action on our part, and consequently, action involves risk.

To offer and receive love and generosity and devotion, we have to allow ourselves to become vulnerable to indifference and selfishness and betrayal. That’s why these deep affections are such sought-after commodities. These are things we feel within ourselves, and often the memory of past experiences closes the door to opportunities at hand. The risk of rejection seems more powerful, sometimes, than the reward of beauty and joy.

Risk is actually at the heart of the original Christmas story. There was a lot to lose for standing by a young wife for a man named Joseph. Mary risked even more traveling in an inhospitable world, so soon to birthing a child. The Magi risked the wrath of a king. A newborn baby, in peril to all, found peace surrounded by animals and strangers, although no larger himself than a promise.

Virginia risked a lot, too: “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?”

That’s a big chance Virginia is taking, asking questions so meaningful to her, about ideas she can’t solve on her own. What if Dad had said, “Heck no”? What would that have done to the childlike faith that Church explains we all need “to make tolerable this existence.”

Ginny’s dad is risking something, too. He’s put an awful lot of confidence in The Sun not to damage his daughter’s heart. Maybe he didn’t think they would even answer a child, or just trusted them to be kindly in their response. We’ll likely not ever know.

Church –– the author of the most reassuring children’s story of all times; the comforter of millions of children and children to come –– had no children of his own. He was seldom compassionate nor caring. A lonely curmudgeon, he remained a cynic and skeptic toward religion and superstition, and initially refused to have his name credited to his article. Grudgingly or not, he believed he could answer a young girl’s question, and brought comfort to the world.

It is a truth, yet a mystery nonetheless, that God or the universe seeks out those of us who believe we are the least capable to furnish the most genuine answer.

Luckily, we don’t really have to know the answer. We just have to chance that we will find it.

Let me challenge you. After all we’ve been through, together, let’s make this Christmas the year we step out from behind our fears. Let’s dare to do more than hope. Let’s have faith that beauty and joy belong to us, too.

“[We] have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age,” says Church. “No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever.”

Merry Christmas everyone.

John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.