In the comedy movie Elf, Will Ferrell plays a human named Buddy who was raised by elves. One day his adoptive father, Papa Elf, takes him into the room that holds Santa’s sleigh.
Buddy: Santa’s sleigh!
Papa Elf: You’re going to help me make it fly.
Buddy: I thought the magical reindeer made the sleigh fly.
Papa Elf: And where do the reindeer get their magic from?
Buddy: Christmas spirit. Everybody knows that.
Papa Elf: Well, silly as it sounds, a lot of people down south don’t believe in Santa Claus.
Buddy: What?! Who do they think puts all their toys under the tree?
Papa Elf: Well, there’s a rumor floating around that the parents do it.
Buddy: That’s… that’s ridiculous! I mean, parents couldn’t do all that in one night. What about Santa’s cookies? I suppose parents eat those, too?
Papa Elf: Yeah, I know, and every year, less and less people believe in Santa Claus. We have a real energy crisis on our hands.
Papa Elf: Just see how low the Clausometer is.
Buddy: That’s shocking!
Of course, the disbelief started much earlier. An editorial appeared in the September 21, 1897, edition of The New York Sun titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” It was a reply to a query sent by an 8-year-old girl named Virginia. She asked her father if there was a Santa Claus, and he suggested she write to The Sun and ask, telling her, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Francis Pharcellus Church, one of The Sun’s editors, famously replied to the young girl, offering a line that is now part of modern folklore: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
He lamented the loss of childlike dreams and wonder. Placing Santa Claus alongside such things as love and joy, Church encouraged Virginia to hold on to the idea of Santa Claus in the name of all things imaginative and poetic as a cherished mark of childhood.
I’ve always liked his answer.
But there’s more.
You see, there really was a Santa Claus.
His name was Nicholas of Myra, later known as Saint Nicholas. He lived in what is now Turkey, dying around the year 350. He was a very active leader in the early Christian church, even participating in the great Council of Nicea in 325.
Nicholas was known for holiness and passion for Christ. He was even imprisoned for his faith as part of the Diocletian persecution. He gave most of his money away, and his love for children was real.
One of my favorite stories from his life has to do with three poverty-stricken girls. In those days, a young girl’s hopes rested on her father’s ability to provide a dowry (a dowry was money a father provided to whoever would marry his daughter).
No money, often no marriage.
A girl without a dowry from a poor family was often thrust into the worst of situations because they had no other way to fend for themselves. Many found themselves ensnared in the world of prostitution.
Nicholas was concerned about the three young girls, and the future that awaited them, so one night he took three bags of gold and anonymously threw them into the house, allowing each girl to have a bag of gold for her dowry.
All three were married.
Nicholas later became the patron saint of children. In fact, it was children who began giving presents in his name. But they had trouble pronouncing it, so St. Nicholas became Sint Klaes, and then became Santa Claus by the Dutch.
Simply put, St. Nicholas was one of the great heroes of the faith, and worthy of honor. Even during times when “saints” were less than celebrated, such as the Reformation, Nicholas remained popular.
So did we tell our children about Santa Claus? Yes, we did. We told them of a good and godly man who gave presents to children out of his love for the Christ child. We even had a ceramic of a “kneeling Santa” before the manger.
And when the time came that we let our children in on the “secret,” we told them that parents continue on the tradition of celebrating Christmas by gift-giving in the name of Santa because of his noble and good life.
So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
And he was – and through parents, still is – more wonderful than you ever imagined.
James Emery White
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Wikipedia, read online.
For the full editorial in the 1897 Sun, courtesy of the Newseum, click here.
Adam C. English, The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.