A letter written more than 100 years ago by a newspaperman to a little girl in New York City, who was beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, continues to get a lot of attention. Frank Church’s 1897 denunciation of skepticism, which included the now-famous line “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” remains a masterpiece. However, a letter written by a Maine-born newspaper columnist and editor took a more direct approach to answering the same question from a schoolgirl and her friend. This letter deserves wider consideration.
Like Church, Alan MacLeese, a native of Jonesport, was given the task of answering a letter from two young readers, 8-year-olds Gretchen Gehl and Stacy Fulcher. MacLeese worked at numerous papers and was a long-time columnist for the The Flint Journal in Michigan, where he penned the 1975 letter. The piece was reprinted in papers around the world.
It would be very easy for me to start this letter by simply saying, “Yes, Gretchen and Stacy, there is a Santa Claus.” But I am not going to do that.
I probably would do that if you were “little kids” and weren’t beginning to understand things. But you have shown that you are not “little kids” by writing that letter to The Journal.
Your letter shows that you have taken the first step toward being “grown-ups” or adults. You did that by asking a question about something that was important to you. A lot of people just believe anything that is told them and don’t bother to ask questions. People like that aren’t grown-ups, not really.
But people like you, people who are “determined” to get at the truth, don’t deserve to be put off with an “easy” answer. Especially about something as important as whether there is a Santa Claus.
Because you are acting like adults, I am going to treat you like adults and answer the way I would any grown-up. And if you are not satisfied with my answer, I think you should keep asking questions until you have the facts.
Let’s go back in history, 1,600 years ago, to a man — a real man — named Nicholas. He was bishop of a church in a place called Asia Minor.
This man, this real man, did many good things for people. He didn’t give Christmas presents to children, but he was so loved by the people that, after his death, they made him a “saint.” Many special persons have been honored in this way.
Saint Nicholas meant something important to people. And even though he was dead, the people wanted to keep what he stood for alive. What he stood for was the spirit of giving and making others happy.
The people began observing Saint Nicholas’ birthday by doing the kind of things he did. Making other people happy, especially children.
In one place in Europe, people began giving their children gifts on this saint’s birthday and telling the children the gifts were from Saint Nicholas. Now that was both true and untrue. Remember, I told you this wasn’t an easy question.
It was true because the exchanging of Christmas gifts can be traced to Saint Nicholas. It was untrue because Saint Nicholas was dead.
As the years passed, Saint Nicholas was given many names in many countries. In our country, as you know, he is called Santa Claus.
Parents nowadays tell their little children that Santa Claus lives in the North Pole and visits them every Christmas with a sleigh full of toys drawn by eight reindeer.
You’ll notice Gretchen and Stacy, that I said parents tell this to their “little children.” By this I mean children who haven’t started to read and write and think about things in a grown-up manner.
Which is why I hope you’ll keep this letter among those of us who can be considered as grown-up. Or, at least, starting to grow up.
Question: Is there a real man named Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole and visits children on Christmas Eve with a sleigh full of toys?
No, Gretchen and Stacy, there is no such man.
Does that answer hurt? Make you angry at those who have told you this is true? Make you feel that Christmas is spoiled?
If it does, maybe you had better stop and think. The way you did when you wrote to The Journal.
Ask yourselves why would anybody — your parents, perhaps — tell you that such a man was real and coming this Christmas if it weren’t true.
Could it be that this was their way of showing their love for you by telling you a beautiful story and making it come true? Of showing you the joy of giving? Could it be that they remember when they lived, ever so briefly, in that world? Before they, too, started asking questions and going about the business of growing up?
Now let’s ask your questions again. Is there a Santa Claus?
Yes, Gretchen and Stacy, there is, at least for the more fortunate children in our world. This Santa has a lot of names. Mother. Father. Uncle. Friend. Grandmother. Grandfather.
And fortunate children can prove this Santa is real. They can just reach out and touch.
One more thing. Soon, Gretchen and Stacy, there should be two more Santas. Real ones. Their names are Gretchen and Stacy.