December 10, 2001 -- In 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon wrote to The New York Sun: “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?”
Frank P. Church wrote The Sun's famous answer, reprinted countless times:
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age….They think that nothing can be that is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little….
“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….There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence….
“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…”
Church's answer touched many people, but why not teach our children that the most real things in the world are the wonders we can see and create? Why not teach them that the stuff of poetry and romance can exist outside fairy tales?
Your eagerness to know is wonderful! Have you ever scooped up a lost nickel, only to discover that it is a quarter? Santa is like that, a thousand times over. No, there is no Santa outside imagination. But why you were told about him is much better than if he were really real.
Santa is a playful fantasy full of hope and happiness, inviting you down the challenging path to true adulthood. Yes, he embodies good will and generosity and inspires children everywhere to appreciate the difference between Naughty and Nice. But there is so much more that you and your friends are just now glimpsing, hidden behind the tale's knowing wink.
Santa helps us to learn the crucial lesson that sometimes what we are told just isn't so, no matter how splendid it sounds, who says it, or how tightly we might cling to the idea. He invites us to push through the veil of a child's blind acceptance to join the grown-up world of facts, thought, and independent understanding. Just as nobody can see for us, nobody can think for us—not even The New York Sun. You have to see the truth of something to really know.
Now, do not let slip fantasy and imagination, for even grown-ups love to play! There will always be costumes and paintings and stories to delight. But we have to distinguish between make-believe and reality, and use our intelligence and creativity to understand the world and make our place in it. This is how we sustain all those things that motivate and fulfill us: love, art, play, hope, romance, achievement, joy.
The most exciting thing you can discover is that reality itself is infinitely more rich and interesting than our wildest fantasies. And Santa brings each of us a priceless gift: help in learning to face the vast wonder and glory of the universe like a hero, seeing by a light that is brighter than the brightest star, shaping and reshaping our world with a boundless engine of creation.
No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. But important lessons and a sweet tale that makes glad the heart of childhood live on, at least until our imagination creates something even better. So celebrate the flowering of your intellect and pass Santa forward to the next generation with love—and a wink.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.