Humility is not a chief job qualification for writers of newspaper commentary. But at this generous season of the year, we opinionists are annually gifted with an opportunity to compare our efforts to greatness.
Exactly 120 years ago, in 1897, a literally childish form of holiday stress inspired what remains to this day almost certainly the most famous — and arguably the finest — newspaper editorial ever written.
We know it by its fighting words: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
Virginia was a precocious but innocent child in gaslight-era New York, troubled by her playmates’ insinuations that the jolly-old-elf legend might be fiction, and whose at-a-loss father suggested that she pose her urgent inquiry to the infallible oracles at the New York Sun (oh, for the days when journalists had such cred).
The Sun’s Francis P. Church rose to the challenge, and unforgettably reminded Virginia that all the most genuine and important things in the world are entities we cannot see — “things” like joy, love and goodness that make life worth the trouble. Santa, he assured her (and us), will outlive every cynic who ever doubted him or ever will, and “a thousand years from now, nay, 10 times 10,000 years, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Argue with that if you can. But in these waning weeks of a wearying year in America, what seems most important to notice is that Virginia’s problem was a timeless and universal one. Here is a vital long-term issue if ever there was one.
Who among us is not laboring — this very day, as on most days — to preserve some shaken belief in something hopeful and lovely, if only for one more year, one more day, one more hour? Your imperiled faith may have to do with our political system or social order, or with some cherished private longing, or maybe all of those.
Whatever your misgiving, Church’s message was actually for you.
Church was, you see, only pretending. He was only pretending that it is children who most need help to hold onto the unseen and unprovable beliefs that matter.
In truth it is adults who cannot do without Santa and all the other fairy tales, to help them fortify more important hopes. Children — the lucky ones, anyway — actually enjoy an incalculable advantage over their elders: They have not yet forgotten that all of life is an uncanny marvel. Familiarity and fatigue have not yet destroyed their ability to appreciate the miracle of the ordinary.
Children can believe in Santa’s literal existence because, when you come right down to it, flying reindeer are no more fantastic than flying sparrows.
The enchantment of a North Pole workshop is really no more transporting than the vision of one’s own backyard filling up with snow, when it coats the branches of the trees like cookie frosting.
And are Santa’s tireless labors of love and generosity in the end any harder to explain than the devotion of one’s own parents?
G.K. Chesterton said that the difference between children and adults is that children know when they are pretending and when they are not. We adults get all confused about this.
Adults think of the holiday season as an interlude of make-believe — what with Santa, Frosty, Scrooge, the Grinch and all the rest. But it may more truly be the remainder of the year when we do the real pretending.
We pretend most of the time that we understand more about the nature and meaning of our existence than we really do. We pretend that we can ever be satisfied with an unenchanted world. We misplace our sense of wonder, not least regarding human accomplishments.
But consider: This year, American research spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 each marked 40 years of wandering through space — as long as the Israelites of old wandered in a much-less-forbidding wilderness.
Both of these mechanical devices, the work of human hands, were launched in the late summer of 1977, when calculators were still cutting-edge technology. And both are today more than 10 billion miles from Earth. Over the years they have brought us astonishing new knowledge of our solar system’s planets, and they communicate with Earth still, every day.
And they have billions of miles to go before they sleep (after which, NASA says, they’ll keep on trekking, silently and indefinitely, at some 30,000 miles per hour).
Admittedly, it’s another variety of wonder that a single species can be so brilliant and creative as to send forth Voyager — not to mention in sending forth the Brandenburg Concertos and the Salk vaccine, among a few other things — and yet can be so maddeningly stupid in ways every reader could itemize as well as I could.
Let’s set that list aside just now. Christmas is the season for true realism, for momentarily dropping all our reductionist nonsense and embracing a world that makes sense to our hearts.
Let us drag a magical tree into the family room, bejewel our homes with twinkling lights, wrap presents in colored paper and ribbons, put antlers and Santa hats on our dogs and become like little children, as we were once instructed to do.
Need an aid to the humility all this requires? Santa and Voyager, both of them, may well outlive you by 10,000 years
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.