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Many years ago — make that many, many years ago — I began struggling with that question that has vexed parents for generations: Is there a Santa Claus?

It is a challenge that ranks pretty close to “Daddy, where did I come from?”

The classic answer to the Santa Claus question was published in the New York Sun on Sept. 21, 1897, written by one Francis P. Church, a columnist described in one account as “a sardonic man.”

I looked up “sardonic” and I found synonyms like “mocking, cynical, satirical, sarcastic, derisive, unkind, sneering, disdainful.” Children deserve better; so does Santa.

Sardonic or not, Church answered the inquiry from eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon with a gentle reply, writing in part:

“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.”

He went on: “Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

It has been probably close to 50 years since I took my first shot at the topic. Each year, I try to tweak it a little. I still hear from readers at this time of year who say they enjoy reading it. A few have said that they share it with their own children.

I am honored.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Your little friends have made you unhappy by telling you there is not, but it is really they who are unhappy, for they have lost a little of the magic of childhood.

Some of my friends say there is no God, and they’re grown-ups, and I think they should know better. It is sad that they have lost their faith, not because I believe them, but because they believe themselves.

You know, Virginia, God and Santa Claus have a lot in common.

When we are very young, our parents tell us that God is a person like you and me, with a head, two arms, two legs. And they say He lives in Heaven — a place high in the sky — and sits on a throne of gold.

Is that the way Heaven really is? I don’t know; I’ve never been there. But I do know there is a God and a Heaven; I know because of a mystic miracle called faith.

When we are very young, we cannot understand ideas like a God who exists but not in human form, or a Heaven that exists but not in the form of a beautiful city. So our parents and Sunday school teachers and preachers describe God and Heaven in a way they hope we can understand.

Santa Claus is a lot like that, Virginia.

When we are very young, we are told that Santa Claus is a chubby old fellow who wears a red suit and lives at the North Pole, where he has a toy shop.

And we are told that on Christmas Eve, after we are sound asleep, he flies over all the world in his sleigh, leaving presents for all the children.

Is there really a Santa Claus who looks like that and lives at the North Pole? I couldn’t say, for I have never been there. But I do know that there is a Santa Claus.

He lives in the hearts of children, and of their parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and just about everybody else who loves children.

You wonder if the man in the red suit ringing a bell on a street corner or riding a fire truck or coming to town in a helicopter or sitting in a store is really Santa Claus. And if so, how can he get all his toys ready in time?

Well the way I look at it, these people are sort of like the preachers in our churches. They are not God; they are His helpers. They help us understand who God is and how He wants us to live. But just because they are not God does not mean there is no God.

And that’s the way it is with the Santa Clauses we see on the streets and in the stores and at the parties at Christmas time. They are Santa’s helpers, who help us experience the excitement of the season and the joy of giving as we celebrate the birthday of Jesus.

But just because they are not the real Santa Claus does not mean there is no Santa Claus.

I cannot see God the way I can see you or my own children and grandchildren, yet I know that God exists, because I can see what He has done in our world.

I have never seen Santa Claus come down my chimney, either, but when I hear people wishing a Merry Christmas to strangers and sending cards to friends they haven’t seen for years and giving money to charity . . . and most of all, when I see the face of a little child light up with joy on Christmas morning . . . then I know there is a Santa Claus.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He helps us celebrate Christmas.

I think Santa Claus works for God.

_

(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He wrote the first version of this column when his own three children were young. He now has six grandchildren: two Lakeland-Americans, two Gainesville-Americans, and two adopted Ethiopian-Americans. Life is good. Merry Christmas.)

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