Well we are once again officially into the Christmas season with the arrival of December and the city’s festive lights are all aglow. Most welcome the Christmas cheer and hold this period of the year dear as a time to celebrate family and friends. Many cherish its central Christian symbolism while others wish to just survive it for one reason or another. There is no doubting that it has become a mega-commercial event yet, despite this, most of us value this time because whether our focus is religious, family or friends and a sense of community, it presents an annual opportunity to step away from the mundane routine of our daily lives as we acknowledge those sets of relationships in our lives.

As I penned these lines I recalled a memory of a letter read by Gay Byrne on his radio show almost 30 years ago which succeeded in encapsulating the spirit of Christmas and the enduring story of Santa Clause, despite these cynical times. I remember being touched on first hearing the letter, first published in the New York Sun in 1897, in response to an 8 year old girl named Virginia. I searched it out to see if it still resonated today, 110 years later, and 30 years from when I first heard it read. I reproduce it for you here to see what you think.

December, 1897

Dear Editor,

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says “If you see in the Sun it’s so”. Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon.

115 West Ninety-fifth St.

The Reply

Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except what 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 that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

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 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 more 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.

The Story Behind the Letter

In 1897, Virginia O’Hanlon, an 8-year old girl living in New York City asked her father the question that is on the mind of all children during the Christmas season while they are growing up, namely “is Santa Claus real?”. Caught off guard, as most parents are when this question is asked, Mr. O’Hanlon thought a moment and, rather than answering his daughter’s query directly, suggested that she write a letter to the editor of the New York Sun. As the editor of such a large and influential paper, he would surely know the answer to her question. And Virginia did just that.

Like Virginia’s father, the editor of the Sun was in a quandary over how to handle the letter. So he gave it to Mr. Frank Church, a writer who wrote a regular column for the Sun about the burning issues of the day. Mr. Church did not consider the existence of Santa Claus to be of sufficient importance to warrant his time and space in his column. But his editor insisted and, since the editor was the boss, Frank Church was forced to think about little Virginia’s question. After mulling her question for a few days, Mr. Church sat down and wrote his now famous reply to Virginia’s letter.

Frank Church wrote many articles during his thirty-five year career as a writer for the New York Sun. The articles dealt with the great issues of the day and were read and contemplated by hundreds of thousands of readers.

Today the New York Sun no longer exists. The great issues of those days, 100 years ago, are largely forgotten. The thought-provoking articles written by Mr. Church about those once important issues can only be found today in the yellowing copies of the Sun that reside in dusty basements of libraries.

Both Virginia O’Hanlon and Frank Church are now dead. But, like Santa Claus, her letter and his reply remain timely and fresh and are reprinted, by popular demand, in thousands of newspapers and magazines every year. The big issues of the day come and go. It is the little things that touch peoples’ hearts and lives that are remembered.

Yes, I think that letter still resonates down through the decades, with all the badness in the world what’s wrong with a good dollop of goodness?

Tail Pieces

1. That roundabout: Yes, the revised lay-out of the lanes approaching the WRH from the country end has generated much debate in these parts. I wrote about it last week and I got quite a few phone calls, e-mails plus lively conversations on the bus. We wrote last week that there had been initial widespread confusion despite the signposting but as the week progressed more drivers began to cop-on that the inside lane was only for vehicles turning left. However, a significant minority who are either still blissfully unaware of the change or others who simply don’t care are proceeding straight ahead as before. There have been many near misses with much honking of horns. Most of those who have contacted me are strongly of the opinion that the new arrangement is at variance with the rules of the road in relation to lane discipline in respect of roundabouts. They say that while the obvious intention is to ‘free up’ this junction/bottle-neck by releasing the left-turning traffic into a dedicated lane, they argue that this can only be properly achieved by a slip-lane being constructed there. I would urge the engineering department to have another look at this one – I assume they keep these things under review anyway.

2. Tops of the Town & County

Last week, I forgot to bring word of a great little victory we had in these parts the previous week when a team from Beckett’s achieved the highest score in the county in the WLR Big Table Quiz. Over 40 pubs each in turn with a goodly number of in-house teams took part in this Lions Club/WLR Christmas Appeal, raising over €16,000. A set of 100 questions were broadcast over the airwaves by WLR and then answered by the participating teams of three and a Lion’s Club volunteer officiated in each pub. About a dozen teams got into the eighties, a Dungarvan pub reached an impressive score of 90, but Beckett’s outshone the lot on the night with a mighty score of 93. Well done to captain Jean Mulcahy and her team!

Go seachtain eile, slan.