Several years ago there was an article in the New York Times (here) that captured my attention and my tendency to wax nostalgic about the past, especially New York City history.
The article was about the former home of Virginia O’Hanlon, who at the age of eight, in 1897, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper. The editorial answer became the timeless “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…” Virginia’s childhood home on West 95th Street, once an elegant, upper middle class townhouse, was a boarded up ruin by 1967 and was in even worse condition 20 years later, when this article was written. At that time it was the subject of a complicated and divisive legal battle between developers and the city. (It subsequently was incorporated, along with two adjacent buildings, into a school, rendering it unrecognizable.)
The article and heartbreaking picture caused me to imagine a time when Manhattan was primarily a residential area. The lower part of the island was the bastion of capitalism, but the majority of the city was comprised of small neighborhoods like the one Virginia lived in with her physician father. Granted, there was an incredible and unconscionable dichotomy between poverty and wealth, even worse than it is now. But the idea of family homes, windows warmed with lamplight, the sound of hoofs clopping down the street, is irresistible, especially compared to the contemporary blare and frenzy.
I cannot find the reference, but I remember reading about a visiting Dutch royal at the time of the bicentennial. As he was touring Manhattan, he asked to see something from the original Dutch settlement. He had to be told there was nothing remaining. “You Americans are very thorough.” he remarked drily. I remember that comment frequently when I am in the city. Progress is great, but so, so much is gone forever, to our detriment.
But Francis Church’s response to Virginia in The Sun does survive and his words, printed on September 21, 1896 (what would become my birthday fifty seven years later), are just as pertinent today as ever:
"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 it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
"115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET."
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical 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 may 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 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.
Merry Christmas everyone!! I send you all the warmest wishes for a peaceful, joyous holiday!!
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