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Yes, Virginia, there probably is no Santa Claus.

A century ago, on September 21, 1897, the New York Sun printed a letter from Virginia O'Hanlon, age eight, which asked, "Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

The reply by Francis Church of the Sun is famous. Unjustly so, in my opinion.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," Church wrote. "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist."

I think the reason his reply is almost universally admired is that Church grouped together several wonderful human attributes, qualities, and emotions and reminded us how very important they are. He speaks of generosity, poetry, and romance, and I think he speaks, too, about wonder, awe, and imagination. For this, I like his reply. My reason for concern is that the reply delivers other messages as well--messages which I feel involve evasiveness, falsehoods, and shoddy thinking. And though it might to some seem ludicrous to address his brief reply in detail, I have often felt uneasy with part of its message. That it is read every Christmas as a lesson and inspiration to children (and adults) is curious to me.

First, the question of metaphor. Virginia's request, "Please tell me the truth," deserves more than an unexplained metaphor in reply. If Santa Claus does not really exist (as any child or adult would understand that phrase) but "exists" as a metaphor for generosity and love and poetry and the like, is this what Church thought Virginia was asking about? If his intent was to explain to Virginia that Santa Claus existed in some special, metaphorical sense, he didn't spend any words doing that. But if Virginia was asking, as I think she probably was, about a man in a red suit who rides through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and who comes down chimneys to deliver presents at Christmas (or the 1891 equivalent of this), then Church either misunderstood the question or evaded it and answered some other question. Why should this be admired? Either Church was telling Virginia that Santa Claus (the person in the red suit whom she was asking about) truly exists (a falsehood), or he was telling her that Santa Claus stands for generosity and love and the like, and therefore exists but not as a real person in the sense that she meant But he failed to add the last part of this thought and thus evaded her question. He either told her that he believed Santa was a real person or he used "Santa Claus" in a different sense from the way she had and didn't bother to explain the difference.

Whether Santa is considered a person or a metaphor, I think the main point of Church's reply is that all these valued qualities--love, generosity, poetry, romance--are in danger of being lost to our children if they lose their ability to believe in Santa Claus. In a discussion about the existence of Santa Claus, he talks mostly about the importance of a certain group of human qualities and emotions, and thus implies that there is a connection between the preservation of a belief in Santa and the preservation of these traits. Church has tied romance and poetry and generosity together with the belief that Santa Claus exists. Then he has cautioned Virginia that, if we deny the existence of Santa, we will damage or destroy romance and poetry and generosity. "Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies."

It is true that romance and poetry are important, but that does not mean that Santa Claus must exist to ensure their survival. It is true that love and generosity are wonderful, but that does not mean that Santa Claus (or fairies) must exist. But Church made it sound so. The message is that these things were tied together inexorably. Lose Santa and you lose, or begin to lose, many wonderful and important values and emotions. Somehow, the questioning of beliefs--or the attempt to distinguish between the imaginary and the real--is seen as threatening. That romance and generosity or that wonder and mystery and unutterable beauty can exist for Virginia without a belief in mythical or folkloric figures is a concept to which Church was, apparently. not open. His coupling of the existence and importance of these things with the existence of Santa Claus was, I think, unnecessary and invalid.

The message of the reply, then, includes the message that to reject belief in Santa Claus is to reject (or put at risk) a long list of humankind's important values. Why this linking of important human values with a patently imaginary figure? It is, I suggest, a way of thinking that is more than sometimes found in religion and mysticism. It is a fear that questioning and searching will destroy wonder, not deepen it. It is a fear that romance and wonder and love will not survive, ultimately, once we begin to lose a belief in, say, angels. Even if these fears are not well founded (as I think they are not), they explain the connection that some people make between mythical figures and certain human values.

However, although these fears are, I think, extreme, there is a different but related thought that I find convincing: it is the feeling that, if we lose the ability to imagine wondrous, unseen things, and to consider them as possibly real, we lose a delightful and very important capacity. This feeling is significantly different from the ones I described in the previous paragraph. If we apply it to Church's statements, however, it does not strengthen his position. There are just too many people who possess (and revere) the capacity in question, who still don't find it necessary to believe in Santa Claus or fairies or the like. Having the ability to imagine wondrous, unseen things does not include a requirement that one make no distinctions between real and imaginary beings. Church's fear is unfounded: by distinguishing between imaginary and real beings, we do not start down some slippery slope at the bottom of which we will have lost the ability to imagine wondrous, unseen things: lost our sense of awe; or lost poetry, romance. or generosity. The reasons this doesn't happen is, first, that there are very many real wonders and, second, that the imagination is fully appreciated and fully rewarding as just that--imagination, not reality.

Santa Claus can be appreciated, even by adults, as an imaginary, wondrous, unseen person. But to tell Virginia that Santa is real and that, if we don't believe in this reality. we risk losing important human values is a message that I don't think bears too much more repeating.

A few more brief points and then I'd like to consider a different response to Virginia's question.

"Alas, how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!" Church continues. Is this just an aside? I'm not sure. Virginia has asked, "Is there a Santa Claus?" and there is some indication that Church wanted it to be a persuasive argument for Santa's existence, that his nonexistence would make the world dreary. But this tells Virginia that, if something is dreary, then it must not be true. It tells her to base her determination of what is true and is not true on what comforts her and what distresses her. Is this teaching a worthwhile lesson?

"Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age." Church says this of Virginia's friends who, according to her letter, have told her there is no Santa Claus. But what does Church know about these friends of hers? He makes it sound almost as if they had been (at least partly) contaminated by some dreadful way of thinking. But all we (or he) can know is that they told Virginia that there was no Santa Claus. Did he assume that they all lacked in love or generosity or poetry or fancy or imagination? Or that they were at risk of losing these things because of their disbelief in Santa Claus? He seems to dismiss them too easily, without knowing how much imagination or generosity they might have had. To him, they disbelieve, therefore they are affected by skepticism. Why do they disbelieve? It doesn't matter to him.

Church goes on to tell Virginia, "The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor man can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there." Isn't there a problem with this thinking? As an example of the most real things in the world, he cites fairies, and then explains that not ever seeing them doesn't matter because that's "no proof that they are not there." Since he fails to mention that it's also no proof that they are there, he almost makes it sound like the fact that nobody ever sees them is evidence of their existence. I'm not hiding other, more persuasive statements of his. This is his persuasive statement. And he uses the same approach concerning Santa: "Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus." Thus, Church attempts to use the argument that just because we can't see something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist (which is true) as, somehow, an argument for the existence of Santa (which doesn't follow).

Church's reply to Virginia's letter is very brief. He apparently wrote it in a short period of time, and I wonder if he was trying not to hurt Virginia's feelings. Church's editor at the Sun, Edward P. Mitchell, later recalled giving Church the assignment of replying to Virginia's letter "Church bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk and in a short time produced the classic expression of Christmas sentiment."

Can't parents reply to children in another way when they are asked to tell the truth? This would be my response:

Yes, Virginia, your friends are right. There probably is no Santa Claus. But that does not mean, as some would have you think, that there is no poetry or romance or wonder in the world. Santa is an imaginary wonder, but there are real wonders, too. Stars are real, not painted in the sky. The winter night, the wind, the softly falling snow, the joy and mirth among your own family and friends and with new people you will meet, these are not imaginary.

You were told that it would be a dreary world without Santa Claus. It is true that there is sadness and difficulty in the world, Virginia, but who can call a world dreary that has such as the reindeer or the tumbling kitten, that has music so grand that it takes your breath away, that has things so funny that you can't stop laughing? Who is this fellow who told you that the world would be dreary? He must not know about that wonderful path you know that leads across the winter meadow, down the brown hill, and into the tall woods. He must not know about the warm smell of oatmeal cookies baking in Auntie's kitchen or about the lands beyond the hills or about the sea waves breaking against the north jetties in a wild storm.

How could this fellow think the world a dreary place if there are really all these things? Maybe he thought that, if you don't believe in Santa, you lose them all. But that's not true Virginia. They are real. You can disbelieve in Santa Claus, and yet generosity and love and mystery and poetry and music and beauty will still exist, and they will make this world for you a very undreary place.

Some people do not want to separate the imaginary from the real, but I know that you already think it is important to do so, because you asked, "Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?" Sometimes, as in this case, it is fairly simple to find the answer to what is real, but sometimes there are difficult questions to which people never find an answer. And sometimes there are answers that are hard to take. The imagination is good, Virginia so let your imagination soar and, at the same time, be always in awe of reality, for the world is a real world that has mysteries more fascinating by far than Santa Claus.

The fellow who told you about Santa Claus spoke of much that is very important, such as love and poetry and romance and fancy. Hold to these dearly. And hold dearly to honesty and to the courage to seek the truth. These will not threaten love or generosity. These will not diminish wonder.

RELATED ARTICLE: Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus

We take pleasure in answering at once and 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

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 is so.

Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O'Hanlon

115 West 95th Street

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what 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 around him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of 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 the, abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas, how dreary would be the world U 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 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, not even the united strength of all the strongest men who 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 Cod he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, by, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

--Francis Pharcellus Church, assistant editor to the New York Sun, 1897

Champe Ransom owns a chimney sweeping business in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has a law degree and, in his spare time, has performed with a comedy and juggling team. All quotations are from the book Is There a Santa Claus? containing Virginia's letter, Church's rep), and comments by William 71 Dewart, who published the book.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Ransom, Champe
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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