Yes, Mason, there is a Santa Claus

Sitting here, with a light blanket of new-fallen snow outside my window, beyond my Tannenbaum, I am feeling Christmassy and want to tell a Christmas story about newspapers.

One of my favorites is the story of “Yes, Virgina.”

You’ve likely heard the story. There are books and movies, and Macy’s made it a big part of its Christmas ad campaign.

It’s the story of Virginia O’Hanlon, who was 8 years old in 1897 and doubting whether ol’ St. Nick was real. Some of her friends had told her he wasn’t.

She asked her father, a coroner’s assistant named Philip O’Hanlon, and he told her to write a letter to the editor of the New York Sun.

So, precocious as she was, she did.

“Dear Editor,” she wrote. “I am 8 years old. Some of my 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 sweet girl’s missive found its way to newsman Francis Pharcellus Church, who quickly typed up a response that was published, unsigned – along with Virginia’s letter – on Sept. 21, 1897.

“Yes, Virginia,” Church wrote, “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. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”

I love that story for a few reasons.

The simplest is that I am a newspaperman, and a newspaper fan, and I am enchanted by old newspaper stories the same way a car buff is enchanted by a pristine Model T.

I also love the story because it speaks to the role newspapers have played in our collective history. “Yes, Virginia” is part of our culture and a Christmas tradition for many, and it couldn’t have happened without newspapers.

Newspapers still play a role in our collective history. Readers of The Alpena News still visit the newspaper office every day to cut clippings for keepsakes. Grandmothers still pin to their refrigerators photos and notices of their grandchildren’s accomplishments cut from the newspaper. Young couples still print notices of their engagements and nuptials in our pages. And obituaries still provide one last, physical reminder that our loved ones were here and made a difference in the world.

And, of course, we continue to tell your stories for the sake of the ages, to be preserved and archived for someone to dig out centuries from now. I re-familiarized myself with the “Yes, Virgina” story by reading the Washington Post.

I also like the story because it speaks to a time when there seemed to be less cynicism in the world. Church wrote in the lead to his editorial that Virginia’s disbelieving friends had been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” But Virginia’s father told his daughter that the newspaper could provide her the answers, because newspapers were trusted sources of fact.

That’s a faith that doesn’t exist anymore.

Some skepticism of newspapers is well-deserved, and I would never encourage a reader to blindly trust us or anyone else. But I think reporters continue to sweat, day in and out, to get things right, and I wish distrust wasn’t the default.

Finally, I love that story because it speaks of the connection newspapers have to their communities.

The Sun was no small rag in 1897. It was one of the most successful and influential newspapers of its time. And, still, it took the time to answer a letter from a little girl struggling with her faith in the spirit of Christmas.

Year-round, I think of that story and try to use it as a guide star. I’m not always successful, but I try to answer every letter and email and phone call I get. I try to answer every question and respond to every criticism. I try to say thanks for every praise. I did that in Battle Creek, in Lansing, and now in Alpena.

And I do so because this paper belongs to all the Virginias of Northeast Michigan. It’s yours, and we put it together every day with you in mind, thinking about what you need to know and what you might like to read, and always remembering that we are writing the first draft of your history.

Oh, and, in case my son is reading this: Yes, Mason, there is a Santa Claus.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.