Our daughter Meredith is 14 years old, a competitive snow boarder, and no longer listens for the sound of Santa’s sleigh bells on Christmas Eve. But in 2006, as a 6-year-old kindergartner enchanted by the movie The Polar Express, she was a joyous believer in all the wonders of Christmas, including the jolly bearded soul who slid down the chimney with a bagful of gifts. One day as Christmas approached, a boy in her class told her he did not believe in Santa Claus. Meredith was puzzled by his disbelief and so I wrote this column to assure her that her friend’s skepticism was of no consequence. A December rarely passes without friends and readers around the country asking that I rerun the column. So, here it is and as I look back on 6-year-old Meredith’s wide-eyed wonder, I can’t help but hope that somewhere in her heart of hearts, as she cuts through some white Christmas powder on her snowboard, she can still hear the gentle sound of Santa’s sleigh floating through the night. – Richard Connor
Meredith Connor had a minor crisis this Christmas.
Her friend Buster told her he does not believe in Santa Claus.
At 6 years old and as the biggest fan ever of The Polar Express, Meredith found this disheartening, even though she remained unshaken in her own faith that she would hear bells ringing and the thud of a sleigh pulled by reindeer landing on the roof of her house as Santa made his appointed rounds.
“Buster must have done something bad,” she said.
“Probably,” I replied, “but that does not mean that Buster is a bad boy, generally speaking.”
“Right,” she said. “I think he’s my boyfriend.”
There was no obvious connection between Buster’s lack of fidelity to the legend of Santa and those stirrings that make her Irish heartstrings play wildly, other than the notion that true love knows no bounds, I guess.
Some questions go unasked when your daughter announces she has a boyfriend.
We’ve now watched The Polar Express about 100 times and the soundtrack CD plays continuously on our home sound system.
Meredith believes, and it is a joy to behold.
Earlier this month, I wanted to capture her suspension of disbelief for posterity, so she donned a funny winter hat and agreed to cast a look of bewilderment at an early gift she received the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a model of a balloon holding aloft a basket loaded with Santa and lots of presents for the good boys and girls.
Buster’s cynicism regarding Santa is not without precedent, of course.
It was 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon who in 1897 wrote a letter to a popular New York newspaper, The Sun, asking if Santa was real. Her father, a physician, suggested it.
According to accounts I have read, Virginia wrote to the newspaper, most likely in the summer, shortly after she turned 8, and the newspaper responded in an editorial on Sept 21.
It is perhaps the most celebrated newspaper editorial of all time and it features the famous line: ” Yes, Virginia , there is a Santa Claus.”
As we sit here 109 years later, that editorial has been printed again and again at Christmastime.
“Papa says ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so,'” wrote Virginia.
The monumental task of upholding the reputations of both The Sun and Santa Claus fell to Francis Pharcellus Church, a man who had no children but nevertheless summoned the insight and grace to answer Virginia.
Church had seen much of life’s misery as a Civil War correspondent, but that experience had not dulled his appreciation for the boundless horizons of imagination.
“Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!” he wrote.
His editorial has become memorialized as the answer to the question that has threatened the wonderment and innocence of children for centuries. Because the symbolism of Santa Claus runs so deep and is so far-reaching, the image of the jolly man from the North Pole remains untarnished.
The image of newspapers as the complete, final and truthful word on all things has not fared as well. That image, in fact, has been seriously undermined, although most newspapers still strive for unbending authenticity.
But if newspapers have fallen from grace, it is not the fault of Francis Church. He did his part and he did it for the ages.
Church knew the Busters of his world would be the Busters of Meredith Connor’s world.
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong,” he wrote. “They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.”
No matter the age we live in, most of us believe that our times are unique. They may well be different in any number of ways. Technological advances come to mind.
On Sept. 21, 1897, Church’s Santa Claus editorial was the seventh on the page. One placed higher was written about a new invention: the “chainless bicycle.”
Machines change, society advances, but human nature does not change and has not through the annals of time.
That’s why the works of a literary genius such as William Shakespeare remain as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago. It’s why the editorial reply to Virginia conveys the same message today as it did in 1897.
It tells of love, hope, charity, dignity, and that most elusive and hard-to-hold virtue – faith.
The snowy and sometimes calamitous journey aboard The Polar Express is a journey toward teaching one child, Billy, that there can be no joy, no Santa Claus, unless you believe.
Back in the days of Virginia O’Hanlon, there were the same complaints about Christmas that we hear today. Too much commercialism threatened the sanctity of what is, after all, a religious holiday and celebration.
For me, those tirades and the men and women of furrowed brow who worry about our lack of appreciation for values deeper than the anxiety of diving under the Christmas tree to tear open gifts have become tiresome.
I love the entire spectacle of Christmas. Just last week, I told Meredith that I was sure I’d seen Santa and his reindeer on a trial run across the night sky. And if I were to see Buster, I’d tell him, too. I’d plant the tiniest of seeds in Buster’s mind that he just might be wrong. Before long, he wouldn’t dare to be a disbeliever.
I’d tell him about Virginia and her letter. And I’d read to him from that timeless reply:
“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. 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 would have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”
Then I’d pause, and gently tell Buster there was more:
“Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. 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.”
Finally, I’d peer deep into his eyes and ask this alleged boyfriend his intentions regarding my daughter.
And I’d remind him how dreary life would be without all the Merediths and all the children who can teach us much more about life than the story of Santa. It’s simple. All you must do is believe.
Richard Connor is chairman of the Business Press’ parent company, DRC Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.