Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Dear Virginia"

The name "Virginia" seems to be synonymous with Christmas discussions of Santa Claus. There was a 1974 TV special, a 1991 movie called "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" (not exactly a title that rolls off the tongue, one must admit), and a recent release of a CGI movie called, more simply, "Yes, Virginia." But more generally, there is a cultural lore that the name works as a kind of short-hand for an argument in favor of the big man in red.

But do you know where the phrase comes from? I always thought it was a Letter to the Editor in the New York Times, but I did a little digging and discovered that it was actually from a letter in The New York Sun, published in September 1897. Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote in asking if Santa was real, and the reply she got -- filled with humility about the human capacity to know everything -- became an immediate sensation. It is a letter that some may say perpetuates lies to children. But, clearly, the writer of the reply (one Francis Pharcellus Church, war correspondent during the Civil War) was interested in more than just fantasy. Although he says that if you don't believe in Santa, you might as well not believe in fairies, which is clearly an argument aimed at a child's logic, he also makes the more adult claim that not to believe in things we cannot see would be to strip the world of faith, poetry, romance, and all that makes life worth living. That argument, while not an evidentiary claim that Santa exists, is certainly a compelling message about the power -- and limits -- of the human mind. And it is the eloquence of that message, I think, rather than the question of Santa himself, that caused the phrase "Yes, Virginia" to jump almost immediately into the American lexicon as a rousing reminder of the spirit of the season.

I finally read it for the first time this morning, and I thought you might be interested in it too. (You can click on the picture at left to get a larger, readable, view, or just read the transcription below. Thanks, Wikipedia Commons, for the image.)

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?

Virginia O'Hanlon

115 West Ninety-Fifth Street

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 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 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 may 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 that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view - and picture the supernatural 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, ten times ten thousand years from now he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Virginia herself went on to get not only a bachelor's degree (a pretty rare thing for a woman in 1910) but also an MA from Columbia and a PhD from Fordham. With all those accomplishments, and a career in education, she nonetheless continued to get letters all her life about the little missive she penned to the Editor of The New York Sun as a child. And she wrote back, always with a copy of the original response. There is something quite beautiful about the generosity of spirit, I think, in both the original letter and her use of it.