Sunday, December 16, 2012

Yes, Virginia

In 1897, a young girl named Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun, asking the editor whether or not there really was a Santa Claus. The now-famous response began "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," as Francis Pharcellus Church went on to explain not only that he existed, but why believing in him was such an important thing.

Church encouraged his readers to consider what a world would be like without Santa Claus and how dreary that would be: "there would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We sohuld 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!"

I don't think it's wrong to join in the cultural practices of Santa Claus lore, we did in my family growing up although my parents didn't emphasize the Santa Claus part, and I can't remember a time when I actually believed in Santa Claus, so I realize I'm probably coming from a minority perspective. But I disagree with the idea that if you don't believe in this specific story that there is nothing "to make tolerable this existence." Really? The only thing that makes life worth living is a fat man on the North Pole who gives you whatever you want once a year? That's a pretty pathetic view of life on this earth.

I realize Church was probably not so concerned with the particular details of what Santa does on Christmas Eve as the fact that he believes children should believe in wonderous things, which I agree with. But the fact is, there are plenty of wonderful things in this world that really do exist. You can still view the world through a lens of wonder and awe without being naive and believing lies. As we learn more and more about science we see the beauty and mystery of Nature, from the cosmos to the microscopic, and we realize there is so much more to our existence than we can ever comprehend.

Thomas Nast

I find it interesting he compares belief in Santa with belief in fairies, not only because of my interest in fairy tales, but because belief in fairies is not generally encouraged among children the way belief in Santa Claus is. Most children go through some sort of disillusionment when they discover where their presents really come from, although apparently most manage to get over it without ruining trust in their parents, but I'm a big believer in being honest with kids so I'm not sure how I would handle the issue myself. My parents wanted us to experience the joy of giving as well as receiving, which is part of the reason they didn't go to extreme lengths to keep us believing our presents magically appeared every year.

I think it's more important to emphasize the real heroes in life-those who spend their lives making the world a better place, those who work and volunteer in charities and schools, firefighters and policemen and women and members of the military-those who risk their lives making our lives safer. You don't have to have a superpower to be a hero, and even if Santa Claus doesn't exist the way the Christmas songs say he does, I do believe in the miraculous. I agree with this quote which is also part of Church's "Yes, Virginia" editorial: "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."

Sometimes we do get glimpses of what lies beyond the veil. Santa Claus, and fairy tales, can help us imagine what this world could be like, but are only guidelines.

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