Yes, Virginia,
There Is a Santa Claus


per fidem enim ambulamus et non per speciem.
For we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

Dear Editor:

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 itís so." Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O'Hanlon
115 W. 95th St.
New York, New York

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

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.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? 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. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but thatís no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the babyís rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? 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.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" is a statement from an editorial in the New York Sun newspaper of September 21, 1897. The editor, Francis Pharcellus Church (1839-1906), was answering a letter from an eight-year-old girl, Virginia O'Hanlon (1889-1971), who was troubled because her friends had told her that there wasn't a Santa Claus. Her father told her that she should write to The Sun, which would give her an authoritative answer. What Church told Virginia became a classic and part of the lore of Christmas.

However, if we attend to what Mr. Church said, his answer is actually troubling. It seems evasive and even dishonest. Thus, his initial assertion is simply that, "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist." Since love, generosity, and devotion are feelings, virtues, or abstractions, this implies that Santa Claus exists in the same sort of way. In other words, Santa Claus is not a man who flies around and delivers Christmas presents. But usually, when we say that children believe in Santa Claus, we take this to mean that they expect Thomas Nast's man with a white beard in a red suit to come down the chimney, leave presents, and eat the milk and cookies that have been left for him. To that Santa Claus, Francis Pharcellus Church can easily be saying "No, he doesn't exist."

Church does not make things any better by saying, "You might as well not believe in fairies!" This goes out of the question in a bad way. If we are to take his answer to Virginia seriously, does this mean we are supposed to believe in fairies also? Did Francis Pharcellus Church believe in fairies, with the endorsement of The Sun newspaper? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought that fairies were real and because of that became the target of a hoax that made him look like a fool. Doyle himself did not seem to have the critical faculty or skepticism such as characterized his own immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps this is why Doyle found Holmes annoying and kept trying to kill him off or otherwise end his career. Nigel Bruce (1895-1953), who portrayed Dr. Watson in the old Sherlock Holmes movies of the '30's and '40's, and who actually looked a great deal like Doyle himself, is sometimes faulted for presenting Watson as dim, bumbling, and naive. But, since Watson was actually based on Doyle, himself a medical doctor, Bruce's portrayal may have been more faithful than he knew.

Church then tries an Argumentum ad Ignorantiam, the informal fallacy of reasoning that, because we cannot prove that something is false, it must be true. That doesn't help Church's answer. If his point is more modest, that our failure to see Santa Claus or fairies does not meant that they don't exist, "no proof that they are not there," that would be reasonable enough, except that the fairies are a problem and this does not otherwise give us any positive evidence for the existence of one or the other. It merely refutes whoever it is who argues that Santa and fairies don't exist because we don't see them. Perhaps this was directed at David Hume. But I characterized this passage as an Argumentum ad Ignorantiam because I think that Church expects Virignia, who is certainly unsophisticated in the subtleties of logical argumentation, if not sophistry, to take this argument as having positive force.

The positive evidence we get is that "faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance" enable us to "view and picture" things that are unseen in reality. So the existence of Santa Claus is a matter of faith, which, if he means religious faith, nevertheless needs an assist from fancy, poety, love, and romance. This rather confuses things. Is it religious faith that also establishes the existence of fairies? Or, if we get fairies from "fancy, poetry, love" and "romance," do these things also establish the existence of, say, King Arthur? Church has not drawn the boundaries here very clearly, and we might, in our "fancy," begin to wonder. I find Queen Guenevère at least as attractive to the imagination (at my age) as Santa Claus.

Church then ends on what is really a false note. Santa Claus "will continue to make glad the heart of childhood." Perhaps this gives away the con. It sounds like the whole business here is for children, which indeed is what people commonly think about Santa Claus. Children believe, and it's cute, but then they grow up, get serious, and put away childish things -- except for the next children. This is really not responsive to Virginia's question, and as such it is both evasive and condescending. Virginia O'Hanlon actually grew up to earn a Ph.D. degree from Fordham University. I doubt, at that point, that she literally believed in Santa Claus.

Thus, I think that Francis Pharcellus Church has himself "been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age" that he otherwise ostensively decries. Otherwise he would have given a very different kind of answer. Like this:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He is a saint of the Christian Church, Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD (perhaps 270-343). Myra, where Nicholas was the Bishop, was on the south coast of Asia Minor, in the area originally called Lycia. It is now the city of Demre in modern Turkey.

"Saint Nicholas" in Greek is , and in Latin Sanctus Nicolaus. Because Nicholas is supposed to have provided doweries for three girls who might have been sold into prostitution, or to have raised from the dead three murdered boys, he is regarded as the protector of children. Because he is supposed to have rescued some sailors near Myra, he is also the patron of sailors. Less obvious is why he is the patron of merchants and pawnbrokers. This is interesting because of the hostility of Greek and Christian moralists for trade and money lending. Curiously, Nicholas is also the patron of archers, repentant thieves, brewers, and students.

Since some of his legendary activities, or his intercessions since, involve miracles, he is also called , "Nicholas the Wonderworker." There is no historical evidence for these stories, which seem to have grown over time. There is no certainty that St. Nicholas even existed, but that is the case with many early saints; and there is no particular reason why such a person, at such a time, would not have existed. Myra needed a Bishop when the Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity, and it certainly would have gotten one. And some of Nicholas' activities, like providing the doweries, are modestly persuasive.

St. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Russia and of Greece. There was a Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas that was destroyed when the South Tower of the World Trade Center fell on it on September 11, 2001. The church is being rebuilt on a platform at Liberty and Greenwich Streets, as we see at left, overlooking the 9/11 Memorial. The original church was more than a block away, on Cedar Street. The Orthodox Church will style this the "Saint Nicholas National Shrine at Ground Zero," and every visitor to the 9/11 Memorial will have no trouble noticing it.

So why do we call St. Nicholas "Santa Claus"? Well, "Claus" (Klaus in German, Klaas in Dutch) is short for "Nicholas" (or Niklaus, Niclaus). The full form of "Santa Claus" apparently comes from Dutch, and this is variously cited as Sankt Niklaus, Sante Klaas, or Sinte Klaas. And if we wonder why Americans use such a name from Dutch, it probably derives from the time when New York City was New Amsterdam and Dutch was actually its language. Since much of the lore about Santa Claus now seems to derive from the history of New York, it is suitable that the name itself should, although I don't often see the explanation why Americans should be using a name from Dutch. When families like the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts are themselves of Dutch origin, bearing Dutch names, this is not so surprpising.

Indeed, much of the lore about Santa Claus is now modern, American, and even New Yorker in derivation. The image of Santa Claus, with his beard and suit, was largely created by cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902). The elements of the Santa Claus story, like his reindeer, although kicking around for a while,
The Reindeer of Santa Claus
Right
DasherPrancerCometDonner
Left
DancerVixenCupidBlitzen
are most vividly expressed and remembered in the 1823 poem, "The Night Before Christmas," by Clement Clarke Moore. But there were no reindeer in Roman Asia Minor, and it is actually no part of the account of St. Nicholas of Myra that he went around delivering Christmas gifts, or indeed had anything to do with Christmas. Of course, in the fullness of time, there is no particular reason why Nicholas should not have taken up these responsibilities and associations, with his concern for children and his delivery of the doweries for the girls, so we might see this as a case of the evolution of religious belief and the development of the hagiography of a Saint. So, whatever we believe, it does come down to the question of whether we believe in saints, and in the reality of an afterlife that enables them to continue working their tasks even now.

The "skepticism of a skeptical age," as cited by Francis Pharcellus Church, after all, is that there is no afterlife, there are no saints, there is no God, and that there is no "unseen," supernatural, or "supernal" realm of existence that would contain such things. In short, we might wonder whether Mr. Church himself was not an atheist and a materialist, whose idea of the unseen or supernal is actually moral and aesthetic, a matter of "fancy" and feeling, rather than truly religious and confessional. It is actually hard to tell from his editorial answer to Virginia O'Hanlon, which says nothing about God or the intercession of Saints.

I cannot assure Virginia that there is a God or even an afterlife, but I am otherwise certain that dogmatic atheism and materialism contain many deficiencies and even absurdities, of logic and metaphysics. I do find it curious that in world religion Santa Claus is not the only fat, jolly, and laughing divine being who goes around bearing gifts. There is a Chinese god named , which in Chinese means "cloth bag," from his bag of gifts. His image has actually become familiar to Westerners, although he is usually misidentified as the "laughing Buddha." But this god, sometimes better known as Hotei in Japanese, is not the, or even a, Buddha, but an unrelated god of Chinese religion. Nevertheless, as often happens, he is also sometimes identified with a Buddhist deity, in this case the Boddhisattva Maitreya. Maitreya is not a Buddha, but he is the Future Buddha, who will come when the memory and teaching of the present Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, have disappeared and been forgotten. For all we know, Hotei is actually also St. Nicholas, who is moonlighting in East Asia. And in "a thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years [] from now," he will be born as the Future Buddha. I kind of like that.

At the same time, even if saints and an afterlife exist, and St. Nicholas (or Hotei) in all his glory exists, it is obvious that he does not visit every family every Christmas. Children should know that their parents put the presents under the (sacred in paganism) Christmas Tree. They are indeed sometimes told that their parents are acting for Santa, even as the Santa in the shopping mall is only a helper, not the real Santa. But that is the wrong point. If St. Nicholas came down the chimney and left presents, it would be a miracle. No one rates a miracle just for being "nice," or is disqualified just for being "naughty." Something rather more serious must be involved, although there never has been a rational explanation why miracles should be performed in some cases rather than others, why prayers should be answered some times but not others.

Children, indeed, sometimes discover that even in moments of great need, distress, or tragedy, when a miracle obviously seems called for, and a child may pray to God or Jesus for divine intervention, the miracles still usually don't happen. Indeed, we must say that this is the way it must be;


.

The lord whose oracle is in Delphi
neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, quoted by Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 21, 404 E, The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge, 1964, p.211
for if miracles and prayer operated with the predictability of science, then faith would be unnecessary and meaningless. Yet it is only faith that attends upon the ultimate meaning of life. Also, if God or St. Nicholas corrected every evil and took care of every child, then we would have no need to attend to them ourselves. We could check out, drop out, and watch the fun. But, instead, it is mostly our responsibility; and the fault for doing nothing would not be God's, but ours. At the same time, we can ask, with Kant, "What can we hope?" If something extraordinary happens, just occasionally, it is a sign.

Philosophy of Relgion

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