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December 4, 2022

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

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 the world be 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 this existence tolerable. 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 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 an impoverished man. 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 was 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 Père Noël. 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 based on Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night before Christmas.” The poem describes the jolly old elf 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 overconsumption.

Several years before her death, my mother gave me a figurine depicting 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 think we need to recapture the original spirit of St. Nicholas. 

I had a rare privilege when I served as Senior Pastor of a local congregation. I 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 remarkable 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 had 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 to do something kind for someone else.” 

Some people 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.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

This column will be included in the forthcoming book

By the Way: A Book of Days

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week make a special gift or volunteer your time to a charity that provides for children in need. Thank you.

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