On the first Christmas of my life, in the depths of the Depression, in the early 1930s, my father and all his coworkers received a holiday gift frm their employer. It was a framed copy of a reprint of The New York Sun's famous editorial, published in the late 19th century, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus." In all the years my father worked as a reporter on The Sun, in time bringing honor to himself and his paper, that was the only Christmas bonus he ever received.Every Christmas that I can remember he would retell, the fury and relish, that story of holiday insensitivity in a time of great personal suffering. It became part of our family Christmas tradition, one that still makes me smile so long after whenever I think of it.
The editorial in question, still reprinted widely across the country each holiday season, has become a cliche. Mere mention of it usually brings a cynical curl to the lips. Actually, as I descover to my surprise after rereading it now, it contains charm and grace, and some enduring qualities. The author, Francis P. Church, was a gentle, wistful man possessed of a light and sympathetic touch. His message, as he replied to little Virginia O'Hanlon, age 8, was not to let herself become "affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age," one in which people believed only what they could see for themselves. "They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds," he wrote. 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."
Church was talking about the wonders f life that we cannot see, but which transform the drab and often brutal daily struggles for survival. He was writing of the mind and spirit: "You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not even 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."
In recent years, as the circumstances of my personal life have changed and the children have grown and scattered, Christman often seems more a burden than a joy. The frantic threading through the stores, the horrendous expense of shopping, the unpleasantness that accompanies most expeditions to the Post Office, the sad knowledge of a further decline in service there and elsewhere, the forced gaiety of many holiday parties, the inevitable strain of many reunions, the bittersweet memories of Christmases past, the painful awareness of beloved friends and family members now gone -- all combine to make the holidays an increasingly difficult period. For me, anyway. All the more reason, then, to find pleasure in rediscovering a sentimental old newspaper editorial that, wondrously, survives the harsh passage of time and even offers old verities in refreshingly new ways.
For all its synthetic tinsel and often false air of friendliness, its hearty-for-hire department store Santas and other commercial come-ons, Christmas remains the one time in the year set aside to celebrate those intangibles without which we could hardly claim to be civilized: of giving, sharing, loving, and, perhaps most important of all, of believing. I don't means believing only in a theological sense for these religious but really more secular holiday days.
Francis Church's effort, dashed off on deadline decades ago, warns about the dangers of becoming too world-weary, too disbelieving, too skeptical in a skeptical age. He was writing about the last century, supposedly the age of progress. But he could just as well have been have addressing the present generation of Americans.
This holiday period, with grim economic news coming hard amid the wreckage of yet another failed political administration, and all the forecasts for the immediate future seeming bleak, begins after what can best be described as a collective breakdown of belief in the country. Americans, historically the most optimistic of people, in recent years have become uncharacteristically pessimistic. Perhaps because this age preaches the politics of failure, of so many complexities and seemingly insoluble problems, they have come to doubt the ability of anyone, or any group, to make things better. So we lurch from failure to failure, seeking another quick fix in some new and untried regime, then with equal swiftness rejecting it for another.
Much more than those earlier Americans, we have come to comprehend only what we can see in front of our faces. We have forgotten, as Church felicitously put it, that "nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world."
I wish I could share the surprising discovery with my father this Christmas: that embittering and insulting gift of so many Christmases ago, the source of much wry laughter in holidays since, turns out not to have been so bad after all. If you put aside that Santa Claus business, its philosophy could serve quite nicely for the first Christmas of the 1980s. Since I don't hang the stockings anymore, perhaps I should at least mount it permanently, say by the chimney with care.