It is has become a custom for practically every newspaper in America to reprint, during the Christmas season, the marvelous editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Since it first appeared in 1897, it has become an indelible part of Christmas tradition in our country. It is no secret why.
Virginia’s Letter: A Priceless Relic
The central figure in the story is an innocent girl named Virginia O’Hanlon who is told by her “little friends” that Santa does not exist. She writes a letter to The Sun — a prominent New York paper at the time — with her sorrowful question as to the existence of Santa. The difficult task of replying to the eight-year-old fell on the shoulders of Francis Church, who responded in the form of an editorial.
Although his piece was placed seventh on the page, below the commentary on a newly invented “chainless bicycle,”1 it became a hit both in America and abroad. So much so that when Virginia O’Hanlon died in 1971, a book titled Yes, Virginia was published that illustrated the editorial and the main characters. This tome, still available for purchase on Amazon,2 was eventually made into an Emmy award-winning television show by Warner Brothers. In 2001 the History Channel aired a special on the story, after the original letter, now treated as a relic, was feared to have been lost in a house fire. It was later found intact, and is now in the possession of Virginia’s grandson and was last appraised at twenty to thirty thousand dollars.3
Why all the fuss about Virginia’s letter and the response of Mr. Church?
The Most Real Things in Life Men Don’t See
The story’s ability to enchant readers has to do with the attraction we have for childhood innocence. More than being a tactful reply to a delicate question, Mr. Church was somehow able to explain the fundamental nature of innocence and how it helps the person see a higher reality.
This was the opinion of the great Catholic thinker Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, who actually gave a series of meetings on the subject. He defined innocence as “the desire… to know God from the reflection in His creatures.” This is the essence of Mr. Church’s reply to Virginia.
“The most real things in the world”, Mr. Church says, “are those that neither children nor men can see.” Santa might not exist, he explained, but the “love, generosity and devotion” he represents certainly does.
Formerly a war correspondent during the Civil War, Mr. Church had seen the worst side of human nature which makes his charming reply all the more curious. We sense however that he was not only able to preserve the symbolic value of Santa for a little girl, he captivated the innocence of adults in the process. This is perhaps the secret of the stories continued success.
The online reviews for the book Yes, Virginia illustrate this well.
“The language Mr. Church used,” said Chicagoan Anna M. Ligtenberg, “indicates that eight-year-olds in 1897 were way more grammatically advanced than those in our day… which is part of why this book will appeal to adults. It’s a nice thing to have on hand, to snatch that one last year of believing from the jaws of doubt. More than Santa,” she continues, “Church assures the reader that love, good, and all manner of unseen wonders, including God, exist and will continue to exist.”
Another reader echoed these sentiments with childlike enthusiasm.
“I love Christmas and Santa Claus. I don’t believe I will EVER outgrow it,” she says. “This book just reaffirms exactly what I’ve known and felt for years.”
Finally there is Debora Bandrowsky from Lilly, Pennsylvania. “I believe there is a little Santa Claus in everyone.” This is another way of saying there is a “little Virginia” in us all.
“In the Arms of God”
There are those however who are understandably uncomfortable with the fictitious character that is seen to obscure our Lord’s birth as the Easter Bunny obliterates His glorious Resurrection. This secularized and de-sanctified version of St. Nicholas is more commonly associated with busy shopping malls full of frenetically intemperate masses “shopping till they drop.” As a reaction to the “Happy-Holiday-crowd” that deliberately excludes Christ from Christmas, some parents have a natural aversion to the man from the North Pole.
What we must take into consideration is the fact that innocent children — and their adult counterparts — are capable of seeing the symbolic value of things. Symbols are for the child like an invisible ladder that links the material with the immaterial, the physical with the spiritual. They can be a useful tool to show us how God is and how we should be.
This is the reason, Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira explained, why children like to hear fairy tales. They are like an “imaginary envelope that contains a magnificent, hidden truth,” he said, “that tell us something about the kingdom of beyond.” As much as children appreciate such stories, they have a much greater capacity to separate fact from fiction than we think. They are therefore more concerned about what things symbolize than the thing itself. In other words innocence does not focus on the finger, but rather the beauty of the moon to which it points.
It is for this reason that I appreciated an email from a friend as this article was coming to completion. She had just returned from shopping with her 4-year-old son Paul and described his “look of complete fascination” as he walked through a “winter wonderland” to sit on Santa’s lap. Later that evening, after they had said their night prayers, she asked her son what he thought about his experience with Santa.
“I felt like I was in the arms of God and was going to die,” Paul said.
“Were you afraid?” she asked.
“No, I was courage (sic) because I knew I was going to heaven.”
Gladdening the Heart of Childhood
Children therefore are able to see God when He is aptly symbolized in things that surround them, even Santa Claus. It is very likely that Virginia felt something similar to Paul when she sat on Santa’s lap. We can therefore understand how crushed she was to hear rumors he did not exist. Saying there is no Santa was the equivalent of telling her there was no “love, generosity and devotion.” It was to strip away the “imaginary envelope” and the “magnificent hidden truth” it contained.
More than wanting to know if there is a Santa, Virginia wanted to know if there is a God. With this in mind we can categorically affirm, as we commemorate His birth, “Yes, Virginia there is a God.” The universe literally screams of His existence but only for those who have eyes to see. Paraphrasing Mr. Church we can more accurately say about 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.”