It's as much a tradition of the Christmas season as eggnog and mistletoe, tinsel and garland or Rudolph and his shiny red nose.
The "Yes, Virginia" editorial, published 120 years ago in The New York Sun, was written in response to an 8-year-old girl's question about whether Santa Claus is real. Millions of Americans since have been touched by its exhortation to believe in the unbelievable, to choose faith over logic, hope over humbug. It is not religious, let alone Christian, in its intent. Yet it spotlights in outlook and action what all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ should strive for – especially during this season that celebrates his birth.
"Yes, Virginia, there is Santa Claus," Francis P. Church wrote in 1897. "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give 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 tolerable this existence. We would have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."
As moving as Church's words were, and remain to this day, perhaps most inspirational are the circumstances under which they were written. Church, a stereotypically grizzled reporter the likes of which you'll find in any number of scratchy black-and-white films, didn't much care for the assignment. He was a serious newspaperman, after all, a more than 30-year veteran who worked as a Civil War correspondent and only recently had been exiled to the editorial page. History records much grumbling on his part when his boss handed him the childish scrawl of Virginia O'Hanlon, the little girl whose little friends had been taunting her with the news that Santa was no more than a fairy tale concocted by adults to hoodwink their children.
But something softened in Church as he sat at his typewriter. The innocence of the question tapped a deep root inside him, a man whose own innocence had been battered over the years by the conflicts, political and military, personal and societal, he had been subjected to in his life.
And yet, he penned a piece that may as well have been headlined, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus." Yes, he frames everything he writes in terms of Santa Claus, who we Christians know is not the "reason for the season." But look at his words again: "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy." Sounds like both a description of Jesus and a paraphrase of Galatians 5:22-23, doesn't it? "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."
And the part about the dreariness of a world without childlike faith carries echoes of Matthew 8:2-5: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."
There's a lesson – better, an exhortation – for us followers of Christ in those words of a man who wasn't one of us. Each of us, like Francis P. Church, can find ourselves weighed down by cynicism and frustrated by having to do things we'd rather not. If we're honest, we have to admit those feelings can be magnified during this time of year when we are expected to muster tidings of comfort and joy and goodwill toward men. And yet, that is precisely what Church was able to do – cast off his own struggles and reach out in lovingkindness to a fellow human being who needed it. By offering a little of himself, by using his talents cheerfully rather than grudgingly, he made a difference not just in the life of a confused 8-year-old girl, but in the lives of generations that have followed.
He did it, still famously after six score years, with a nod to Santa Claus. How much more meaningfully can we do it in the name of our Lord and Savior? So let's pause long enough, amid the pressures and preoccupations that grip up the rest of the year, to bring a little smile, a little hope, to the Virginias in our lives this Christmas season.
Not by telling them about Santa, but by treating them like Jesus.