I’ve been asked by my dear friend Mark Richardson to write something about the spirit of Christmas for Ash Long’s Melbourne Observer.
Christmas lives in the hearts of children and the child inside us all. It also lives on because of writers such as Francis Church, Irving Berlin (who penned a little ditty called White Christmas), Charles Dickens (in his sublime novel A Christmas Carol), and Frank Capra’s screenplay of It’s A Wonderful Life. The latter was a flop at its initial release, but like Christmas it is still with us.
It seems it doesn’t much matter whether you tell the story of a pauper child born in a stable, or a jolly chubby white-bearded man in a Coca-Cola suit, or of a husband/father from Bedford Falls who forgets just how many friends he has. The spirit lives on in the telling.
This is a true story I heard many years ago, perhaps when I was a child. It touched me then as it touches me now.
On September 21, 1897, the New York Sun published a letter from a young girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. It read…
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?”
One of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, decided to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it. Church, son of a Baptist minister, had been a war correspondent during the American Civil War, and had witnessed first-hand the great suffering and resultant decline of hope and faith in much of society.
His printed response was so moving that over a century later it remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exists, 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 sight and sound. 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 you 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 tear apart a baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest of men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith. 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 lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
And so he does to this day.
For me the spirit of Christmas was the generosity and joy of giving I saw in my mother, Pearl.
Christmas was her favourite time of year and she’d begin shopping for it early January.
I’d always wake early Christmas morning to see a mountain of presents under the tree. Gifts for me, my sisters, my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and some mere acquaintances.
We were a working class family and to this day I’ve no idea how her meager budget stretched to accommodate all those gifts. No doubt she denied herself many things in order to work her miracle. And although we gave her our gifts in return it was not the receiving that mattered to her, but rather the joy of giving. I’ll always remember the blissful sparkle in her eyes as she watched us excitedly opening our presents.
Since her death, and my son growing up and growing away, Christmas is no longer the same for me. It can be a lonely and hollow time for single people. But, come December, I smile in remembrance, because once I was blessed to have witnessed the spirit of Christmas.
It was not found in the gifts. But in my mother’s eyes.
(c) Frank Howson 2013.