In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia, whether Santa Claus really existed. He suggested that she write The Sun, then a prominent New York City newspaper because “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
One of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, replied in an editorial titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” More than a century later it is the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language. Here is a taste of what he wrote:
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….
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.
If given the chance, I would have answered the same, but with even more specificity.
More than a few parents wonder whether to pass on the Santa story and all its accompanying traditions. Particularly those who worry that if they tell their kids about Santa and eventually have to let their kids in on the secret, that they will undermine their child’s trust in other things they’ve been told are true.
Like the existence of God.
My wife and I told our kids about Santa and embraced the tradition fully in our home. But – and this is very important – we made sure we told them the real story about Santa, which many people do not do.
On the front end, before the big reveal, we made it clear that Santa did what he did out of love for Jesus and to honor His birthday. And at the time of the big reveal, we told them the “secret” in light of the fuller story of Santa and his love for Jesus—all rooted in history and fact.
There was no existential spiritual crisis. If anything, it resulted in deeper faith. They discovered there really was a Santa Claus who really did give gifts at Christmas, and that what parents did was in memory of Santa to keep his spirit and heart for Christ and for children alive.
St. Nicholas was a real historical figure who lived in Turkey and died around the year 350. He was a very active leader in the church and was part of the great Council of Nicaea in 325, which was one of the most important Christian councils in all of history.
Nicholas was known for holiness and for his passion for Christ. He was actually tortured and imprisoned for his faith under the Emperor Diocletian. He gave almost all of his money away to the poor, and his love for children was incredibly real.
One of the stories from his life that we know involved three poverty-stricken girls. In those days, the only way that girls could have a future with a husband was if they had a dowry. A dowry was money that a father could provide so that if somebody married his daughter, she could bring money to the marriage. A dowry-less girl would likely never marry and would often face the worst of situations because she had no other way to fend for herself.
This particular father had no dowry, and he was getting ready to turn his three girls over to prostitution. Nicholas found out about it, and he went one night and took three bags of gold and threw them down into the house through some type of chimney or opening in the house. He gave one bag of gold for each daughter to serve as a dowry for them, so that all three could be married. It was because of this (and many other acts of charity toward children) that he actually became the patron saint of children.
Over time, this led to a tradition of children being given presents in his name. The problem was that the children had trouble saying his name because “St. Nicholas” has so many syllables. It soon became “Sint Klaes” and then later “Santa Claus” by the Dutch.
Simply put, St. Nicholas was a wonderful Christian man – one of the true heroes of the faith – and all things “Santa” can and should be deeply spiritual in nature. Santa isn’t the problem—it’s how we’ve stripped him of his sainthood, motivation and story.
At the appropriate age, we told our children the fuller story of St. Nicholas and how we, as parents, kept it alive because of Santa’s love for Jesus and for children. We even have a “Kneeling Santa” figurine as part of our home Christmas décor that we’ve owned since before even having children. A “Kneeling Santa” is a figurine of Santa kneeling before the Christ child in the manger.
It’s very dear to us.
When Susan and I were dreaming about having children, while I was in graduate school, we saw a limited edition “Kneeling Santa” ceramic in a store. We had never seen this depiction before, but it captured what we wanted Christmas to be like with our children in light of the Santa traditions.
We didn’t have much money, but as soon as we saw it we knew we wanted to have it for our family. Yet it was more than $100! For us, that might as well have been more than $10,000. So, we asked the store manager if we could somehow put it on layaway. Over the next six months, we made every little payment we could until it was ours.
Many years later – not to mention four kids and now 12 grandchildren later – our “Kneeling Santa” is still a centerpiece in our home.
Because “Yes, Virginia, there is one.”
“Yes, Virginia…” editorial from The New York Sun, December 21, 2012, read online.
Image of the article clipping from The Sun on Wikipedia, pictured here.
This article originally appeared here.