Most of us know this famous response by Francis Church to a letter from an 8-year-old, Virginia O’Hanlon, published in The New York Sun in 1897.
“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?”
The response was printed as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21, 1897.
“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. . .
. . . Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. 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.”
The letter is as warm and fuzzy as it is unconvincing, but it does serve a useful function in it’s a good idea, from time to time, to recover the weirdness of existence, its very oddness, the wonder of being alive at all. Even those among us who tend to be skeptical, let alone, to be generally cynical, would profit from being brought up short with the oddness of being here at all. This is a good time of year to think about how strange it is to be here.
Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not A Gadget points out that people reduce themselves because of information technologies. “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality.” Information underrepresents reality. Information can’t give us the full picture. No wonder many of us are disgruntled, disillusioned about politics and worried about the future. The gathering of data isn’t enough and more and more we find ourselves living in a data junkyard.
We live now with a definite undertow of decadence. Jacques Barzun wrote, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” In the light of this, “Yes, Virginia . . .” is a call to rebellion, albeit of an odd kind. Santa Claus may not exist but the story tells us that Virginia and each one of us matters, and that a life fully lived is one full of expectation.
How do we nurture the imagination to create an environment of possibility for ourselves and for others? Why have a generous construction of the world? For example, what comes to mind when you hear, “Twinkle, twinkle little star?” Martha Nussbaum tells the story of one of her students who responded to the question in this way. He saw a sky beautifully blazing with stars and bands of bright color and the sight made him look in a new way at his dog, a cocker spaniel. “I used to look into the dog’s eyes and wonder what the dog was really thinking and feeling. Was my dog ever sad? It pleased me to think about my dog and the way he experienced the world. I looked him in the eyes and knew that he loved me and was capable of feeling pleasure and pain. It then made me think tenderly about my mom and dad and other children I knew.”[i]
Why would “Twinkle, twinkle little star?” make someone think that the starry sky was benevolent and not malevolent? Why think of your dog as loving and good rather than devilish and cruel? Who cares whether some dog is happy or sad? There are plenty of people who take pleasure in an animal’s pain. Martha Nussbaum assures us that something important is going on. She writes, “The strange fact is that the nursery rhyme itself, like other rhymes, nourished a tender humanity within us and stirs up in us the prospect of friendship. It doesn’t make us think paranoid thoughts of a hateful being in the sky, who’s out to get us. It tells the child to think of a star like a diamond rather than as a missile of destruction and also not like a machine good only for production and consumption. The nursery rhyme nourishes a generous construction of the seen.”
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! We’re not talking about the literal truth but what it takes to nourish a generous construction of the seen! Think of Irving Berlin’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Is it true? No, of course not! Is it true? Yes, of course it is! Imagine. It’s December 1941. Bing Crosby is singing it on his Radio show on Christmas Eve – 17 days after Pearl Harbor. For many American troops — fighting in WWII — it was their first time away from home. Irving Berlin lived in a story made up of amazing choices. He faced serious limitations. He could play only in the key of C. Yet he was the most successful songwriter of the 20th century. He embraced a generous construction of the seen. Life was composed of a few basic elements: life and death, loneliness and love, hope and defeat. In our making our way through these givens, “affirmation is better than complaint, hope more viable than despair, kindness nobler than its opposite. That was about it. But because Berlin believed those platitudes implicitly, he helped people cut through the ambiguities and complexities of a confusing century.”[ii]
Everyone knows the song — White Christmas, but our ears are closed when we hear it because we’re so used to it. In fact, if you step back and think about the dramatic situation in the song, the narrator is recalling something that is beyond his reach. He says, `I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.’ Don’t knock it! This is a song from an immigrant Jewish outsider about a holiday that was never his. Irving Berlin was five when his parents brought him to America from Russia. The first Christmas he remembered was spent on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the home of Irish neighbors. The song was an immediate hit. It has no overt religion in it, no Baby Jesus, no manger — but it became a wartime anthem of love and longing. It opens us up to the possibility of a deeper story — a generous construction of the seen. Not a bad way to celebrate Christmas. Not a bad way to celebrate life.
Let Albert Einstein have the (almost) last word: “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”
“Yes, Virginia! There is a Santa Claus!”
[i] Paraphrase from Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice, Boston: Beacon Press, 1995, pp. 38-39
[ii] Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001, p. 3.