An elfy tradition - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

12 December 2013

Those pondering the age-old seasonal query of does the old man in red exist, would do well to begin in 1897, with a letter addressed to the editor of the long-defunct New York Sun newspaper. It posed that question as perennial as a Norwegian spruce:

"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 writer was young reader Virginia O’Hanlon and she received a response from the New York Sun’s editor, Francis Church, that has become one of the most reprinted editorials in newspaper history.

“Yes, Virginia” he wrote. “There is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist,” he told his young scribe. “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editor’s letter, now in the keeping of Washington DC’s Newseum almost 120 years on, should be a rallying cry for those who claim the name Santa Claus as their own each December. Monocle readers and listeners will know that any similar kind of letter written to one of our editors would likely elicit a similarly effusive response.

Santa himself has appeared in our pages many times and visitors to this past weekend’s Christmas Market here at Midori House were enamoured by Father Christmas himself. When he’s not reading letters from those who have no doubt that he exists, he spends much of his time travelling around the world representing the best of Christmas, of course, and also the best of his native Finland. (But Let’s not dwell on the nationality question here – Santa’s national identity is a hot-button topic for many people in Europe’s northernmost corner.)

So now that we’ve established that there is a Santa Claus – how exactly to be Santa Claus?

Turn your eyes to Midland, Michigan and the Charles W Howard Santa Claus School which claims to be the oldest such school in the world. It was established in 1937 by an American actor who assumed the title of Santa Claus at many New York department stores until his death in 1966. There are courses on ‘reindeer maintenance’, how to puff one’s white, wiry beard to maximum effect, and even how to get the perfect chime out of those sleigh bells as they pass through the crisp night sky on Christmas Eve.

Some might say this takes the magic out of the idea of the man whose footsteps we await upon chimney tops each year. But being Santa Claus isn’t a part-time job – it is a craft, a responsibility, and should be treated as such. As one recent graduate of the Santa School put it, “I just want to be the best Santa Claus I can be.”

And As the editor of the New York Sun wrote to little Virginia O’Hanlon at the end of his letter to her: “No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever.”

Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24


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