With seven words - Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - Francis P. Church made editorial history. His short piece, only 492 words, is the most-reproduced editorial in the history of the American language. That short phrase is the most memorable of the entire editorial and is the most paraphrased of any in modern history. The act of answering this little girls letter, Church would say in later years, became the turning point of his life.
Francis Church was a veteran newspaper man who had covered the Civil War for the New York Sun. After surviving the carnage of that war, he returned a different man, bitter and skeptical of all human worth.
Upon the day that he received Virginia OHanlons letter, he was a pragmatic, disheartened man. But somehow, in reading this letter scrawled in a childs hand, Church became aware of the wonder and beauty of a childs imagination and the majesty of what the season meant.
It is no surprise, then, that his answer has survived the test of time, or that Church himself lost his bitter outlook to become a loving person in an almost Dickens-like ending. But the controversy of Santa Claus does not stop there.
Every year since 1897, and probably for the next millennium or two, children have and will ponder the existence of the portly elf. Every year there will be those who, like Virginias little friends, will be filled with skepticism when the malls fill with plastic greenery and trees are trimmed with glass ornaments. Every year, parents will be bombarded with relentless questions all designed to back them into a corner and answer that age-old question: Is there really a Santa Claus?
Santa Claus is not so much a creature of flesh and blood as one of the spirit. This old gentleman, with his snow-white beard, red suit and twinkling eyes, represents all that is extraordinary and memorable about the season; he is the delight, beauty and nostalgia of Christmas. With his eternal chuckle and endless mirth, he teaches young and old the one lesson taught so long ago on that first Noel. He teaches us all the pure love of giving of oneself so that others may be content; he teaches the pleasure of the gift, and the joy of life.
Such creatures cannot be measured by their physical presence so much as their effect upon the rest of the world. One cannot see the wind, but yet we know it exists and is present by the flow of leaves across the lawn. Scientists know the existence of certain astronomical bodies only because of their gravitational effect on other nearby planets, and upon light. The existence of the electron, although not observable to the average person, becomes obvious every time I turn on my computer or Christmas tree lights.
And yet, in this skeptical world, there are those who insist upon the physical evidence for Santa Claus while ignoring the overpowering evidence of his spiritual existence.
That evidence is so embedded in our culture that it is easily overlooked during the season. Yearly, billions of dollars are reaped by our toy manufacturers when economic concerns are overpowered by a desire to fulfill every childs belief. Entering the words Santa Claus into the Yahoo! search engine reaps 1,420,000 Web sites all devoted to our hero. Stories about Santa Claus have been a major source of entertainment ever since Clement C. Moore published his Twas the Night Before Christmas; whether those stories are presented in book, television, motion picture or DVD format.
Finally, the ultimate proof of this fantasy creatures effect on the real world lies in no other source but the United States Postal Service. Last year, the USPS Release No. 090 reported that North Pole cancellations (letters to Santa Claus) totaled more than 600,000.
No more proof need be witnessed than the supernal beauty of a childs face on Christmas morning. No other witness is more convincing than the pleasure of a father watching his daughter talking to Santa Claus and sharing her dreams. Likewise, there is no more devastating moment in human life than the day we stop to believe in what might be, and find ourselves trapped only in the world of physical touch.
Not exist? In the immortal words of Francis P. Church, Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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