This article originally appeared on December 19th, 2016
I write a lot here on Common Sense Central and am often asked what some of my favorite writing is—a favorite book, a favorite poem, a favorite short story. I must confess that I haven’t read much fiction since my days as an English major because I spend so much time reading news reports and editorials.
One of those editorials—in fact the most widely circulated in the history of the English language—is actually probably my favorite piece of writing, especially this time of year.
In September of 1897, an eight year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon told her father, a coroner’s assistant in Manhattan, that she was upset because her friends said that Santa Claus didn’t exist.
“Why don’t you write to the New York Sun,” Dr. Philip O’Hanlon responded. “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”
So she did (or, as some have speculated, she did with his help):
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?
115 W. 95th St.
Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church happened to see Virginia’s letter and was inspired. A war correspondent during the Civil War three decades earlier, Church had seen the worst of humanity, but in the innocence of Virginia’s question he saw the best of humanity.
And his response, published on September 21st, 1897, would echo through history.
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. 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 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 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 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 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 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.
No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Today, 120 years later, all of us are still affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age made cynical by the hubris of our certitude that we as a species know it all.
We have seen distant galaxies, explored the farthest reaches of our solar system, and harnessed the power of the tiniest atom to create weapons that can destroy our world. We have connected our world through computers, and yet we are paradoxically more divided than ever.
Yet we know that we know what’s best, we believe ourselves capable of knowing all there is to know, and we know that there is no place for flights of fancy in this brave new world that we have created for ourselves.
In large measure, this is because the idea of the unknown terrifies us. That which we cannot see, that which we cannot understand, that which we cannot take a selfie with and post to our timeline has no place in our rational contemplation of our world.
We tell ourselves that science has conquered superstition, that reason has trumped belief, that faith is the epitome of foolishness. We have faith only in humanity and as such fall victim to its inherent limitations—especially its propensity for closed-mindedness and cruelty.
But as certainly as certainly as love and generosity and devotion also exist in the human condition, we can have faith in humanity’s inherent goodness as well. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and all of us can be him. All of us can let him work through our love and generosity and devotion to our fellow man.
Santa Claus is in a very real sense the embodiment of the best of humanity—its innocence, its kindness, and its instinct to act with kindness to its most innocent; its children.
As they grow, they begin to be affected by our skepticism just as Virginia was 120 years ago—convinced that all that they can perceive is all that there is—yet all of the knowledge that we have accumulated over the past 120 years can answer the most fundamental of questions about the human condition: Why are we here on this earth? What is our purpose in this universe?
We are, no matter how wise, still like children as we struggle with what we don’t know; what is very possibly what we can’t know. All that we can know is what Santa Claus knows and has taught us for generations—that we are here to make the world a little happier, a little kinder, a little more joyous for others. That’s it.
Santa Claus teaches it at Christmastime, Jesus Christ teaches it every time we read his famous words “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” That’s why we’re here, boiled down to five simple words. And we’re reminded of those words when we, like Santa Claus, celebrate Jesus’ birth by giving of ourselves to our fellow man.
Whether it be a present for a child on Christmas morning, a hot meal at a soup kitchen on a cold winter’s night, or even a warm smile and a “Merry Christmas” to a stranger in a mall, we exist to embody and then spread the love that Santa and Jesus and God have for us.
We can, of course, deny this and in our arrogance assert that belief in God is as childish as belief in Santa Claus, but the greatest gift that we as human beings have been given is free will, and even in this most skeptical age we can choose to reject that which cannot understand or we can choose to believe in more than just that which we can perceive. We can choose to place our faith in the symbols of man’s inherent goodness and we can choose to be the instruments through which they work. We can choose to be like Santa Claus and spread Christmas cheer to adults and children alike, because when our lives our at an end, those connections that we’ve made will be all that matter.
A thousand years from now, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, those connections that humanity has made will be the greatest gift it could have given itself.