You don’t have to study newspaper opinion writing long before realizing that arguably the most enduring editorial ever written was an answer to an 8-year-old girl who wrote a letter to the editor about Santa Claus.
During the years I taught the craft as an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University, I used to joke with students that nothing they could write about wars, corruption in high places or any of society’s other ills would have the impact of the The New York Sun’s defense of Santa Claus in 1897.
At least, I doubted whether anything they wrote would inspire movies or a cantata as that one did.
At first, I said this with an absurd sense of irony. But as time went on, I began to understand the brilliant wisdom Francis Pharcellus Church, the author of that piece, gave the world as his legacy. I also began to appreciate what an appropriate Christmas message it is.
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That is all the more remarkable considering he was a hard-bitten cynic skeptical of religion. But Francis Church also was the son of a reverend, and some of that may have rubbed off.
Virginia O’Hanlon was the 8-year-old who penned the letter after asking her father whether Santa Claus was real and being told, in a bit of parental advice hard to fathom in today’s cynical media age, to ask the newspaper. “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so,” he said.
In response, Church crafted a stirring defense of the Christmas legend. Among other things, he wrote this paragraph:
“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.”
Church, as curmudgeonly as he supposedly was, managed to turn Santa Claus into a symbol of mankind’s potential for goodness, kindness and love.
That alone is a testament to the power of good in each of us, no matter how hardened we may appear to be.
But even the newspaper’s editors didn’t realize what they had. They buried Church’s answer to Virginia three columns in on page 6, beneath an editorial rebuke of state Sen. John Boyd Thacher and a piece on “chainless bicycles.”
I could say something here about the wisdom of editors. But the important thing is that, like all those things Church wrote about, good tends to rise on its own.
All of this happened 120 years ago, and yet those words ought to resonate more now than ever. Without childlike faith, poetry, romance and a hope in things beyond what our senses can perceive, life indeed would be dreary. And yet to embrace those things takes a level of humility that feels uncomfortable for many modern adults.
British Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell once wrote that the loss of humility, or the “check upon pride” that comes from defining truth as something outside human control, is “the road toward a certain type of madness.”
He called it “cosmic impiety.”
“Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God,” he wrote. He also said, “fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
Humble doubts, in their most ennobling form, leave the mind open to glorious possibilities.
Christmas is all about humility. The Son of God was born in a stable and became a refugee at a young age, and yet he provided the ultimate answer to hopelessness, cynicism and sorrow. He defined love, generosity and devotion. When he was older, he would teach that the key to true greatness is to become humble as a little child.
Something like little Virginia, I suppose, whose simple question many years ago, answered by a writer who touched something deeper than perhaps even he understood, continues to warm hearts at Christmas.