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December 6, 2015

More than a century ago eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun. Her request was simple.

Dear Editor:

I am eight 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?

Virginia O’Hanlon

                  115 West Ninety-Fifth Street

       New York, New York

The editor assigned veteran news reporter Francis Church to respond to the child’s question. A few days later an unsigned editorial appeared in the paper and  has since become the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time.

Because we have an seven-year old granddaughter named Virginia, Clare and I recently read the New York Sun editorial from 1897. Here is a portion of Church’s response to Virginia. The entire column is easily available on the internet.

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.

For Clare and me the newspaper column is a Christmas keepsake.

The closer we get to Christmas, the more I see of Santa. I see his likeness depicted on sweaters, neckties, and on billboards.  A favorite Christmas ditty declares that Santa is everywhere.

He sees you when you’re sleeping.

He knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

So be good for goodness’ sake.

Because he is so much a part of the holiday season, maybe we ought to know more about him.

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas who was born late in the third century in the village of Patara, located in what is now Turkey. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.

Following the ancient teaching to sell what you own and give to the poor, Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the poor, the sick, and the suffering. He became a beloved priest. Children knew him for his kindness.  He had a heart of compassion for all people, especially the needy.

Beyond historical facts, there are many legends about St. Nicholas. One tells about a man who was very poor.  The man had three daughters who were not eligible for marriage because they had no dowry.  The poor man could have sold his daughters into slavery, but he refused. They would be his responsibility all of their lives. The culture dictated – no dowry, no husband.

Nicholas heard of the man’s plight. Riding on his white horse, he passed the man’s humble home and threw three bags of gold coins into an open window to provide a dowry for each of the three daughters.  Stockings had been hung by the fireplace to dry.  One of the bags of coins fell into one of the stockings.  Thus developed the legend that St. Nicholas comes secretly to fill stockings.

Nicholas eventually became the Bishop of Myra. He dressed in the clothing of a bishop, wearing a red cap and a long, flowing red robe.  Following his death, he became St. Nicholas, canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  The feast day of St. Nicholas is December 6.

Throughout much of the world, December 6 is the day that children expect gifts from St. Nicholas.  Typically, they put their shoes either outside the door or under the Christmas tree. The following morning, they find their shoes filled with candies, goodies, and small toys.

In France, St. Nicholas is Pere Noel.  In England, he is simply Father Christmas.

The legend of St. Nicholas came to the United States through Dutch immigrants.  He was known as Sinter Claus, a derivative of St. Nicholas in the Dutch language.  In time, Sinter Claus became Santa Claus.  Santa Claus then is a continuation of a legendary fourth-century priest who cared about children and the poor.

In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia, used Santa Claus in some of their advertising at Christmastime.  A commercial artist created an image that was based on the poem by Clement Moore entitled “The Night Before Christmas.”  In the poem, the jolly old elf is described as smoking a pipe. He had a tummy that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.

The priest who became St. Nicholas was a thin man who gave to the poor.  The commercialized Santa Claus became a fat, jolly symbol of over consumption.

Several years before her death, my mother gave me a gift, a figurine that depicts Santa Claus kneeling at the manger.  With his hat off and his hands folded, he is bowing in prayer.  The imagery is appropriate because it removes Santa Claus from the center of Christmas.

At Christmas, the best response we can make is to give to other people, just as the original St. Nicholas did. In the true spirit of Christmas and the true spirit of St. Nicholas, we need to concentrate on the ones who are needy, the people who are poor

I believe in Santa Claus, but I also believe we need to recapture the original spirit of St. Nicholas.

Over the past twenty years, I have had a rare privilege. I have played the part of Santa Claus at various gatherings for the church family. The children presented a Christmas program. Then Santa Claus, yours truly, entered the Sanctuary with a hearty, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Santa sat in a chair, and told the original Christmas story.

When the children heard the story from Santa Claus, it had a special effect on them.  When Santa bowed his head to pray, the children took note.

After the program, Santa lingered as the children crawled up on his knee to tell him what they wanted for Christmas.  Then Santa Claus asked, “Do you know what I want for Christmas?”  The children always looked surprised.  This was the first time they have ever heard Santa make a request of them.

“I want you and your family to remember that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. For his birthday present, I want you do something kind for someone else.”

There are people who would like to do away with Santa Claus.

If we can recapture the original intent of the caring man known as St. Nicholas, we will rediscover a part of the real joy of Christmas.

I no longer play the part of Santa outside of our own family. But to our granddaughter, Virginia, and to all of our thirteen grandchildren, I say, “Yes, indeed there is a Santa Claus!” Then I share with them the story of Saint Nicholas, a lasting example of love and kindness, especially to children.

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