Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus: Operation Santa

The holiday season is in full swing, and as we go about our daily routine of gift buying and wrapping, once in a while, we stop and think of the meaning of all this and how it affects others. With the disaster Frankenstorm Sandy left in its wake, many in the New York/New Jersey Shore area are looking at a bleak holiday season at best. Here at Vanguard, some of us in the production and promotional departments have decided to give a little back. Rather than join the larger organizations helping Sandy victims, we decided to go small and local.

Vanguard does a great deal of mailings for our clients and has a great partner in the US Post Office––what better way to help this season than to join its Operation Santa.

Operation Santa began informally in the early 1920s, when New York postal clerks began chipping in their own money to buy gifts for poor kids whose notes to Santa ended up in the dead letter office. As the number of letters grew, the clerks asked for help from the public. The program has grown dramatically. In 1980, there were about 5,000 letters––this year the total could approach 200,000 in the aftermath of Sandy.

Many of the letters are from very needy children, but not all. (One example cited by the USPO was from a child in a wealthy suburb requesting a list of 28 electronic games that would have added up to more than $4,000––“See you in the mall!” the letter concluded.) We must understand that kids are kids and not be put off by the greed of a few. All kids would like really expensive things, but of the letters we chose, all wanted clothes (among other things).

Our ambassador, Natacha Arora, the newest member of our department, went to the James Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, one of the largest in the United States. She found the experience awe-inspiring and was impressed at how organized the set-up was. After filling out a voucher, she was handed ten letters from the thousands that were all piled up in stacks upon stacks of letters. Whichever letters you don’t use, you give back. Then you can choose others. Natacha selected our letters and divvied them up. The letters are numbered, and all the personal information of the families is blacked out. When the gifts are bought and wrapped, we must return to the Post Office with the letters and pay the postage to ship the packages.

One of the letters we chose was from a ten-year-old-girl in the fourth grade who wrote that her classmates say Santa is not real. She wrote, “Santa I love you … I know you are [real] because I believe in you.”

This brings me to Virginia … In 1897, little eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon from the Upper West Side of Manhattan asked her father if Santa was real. This prompted her dad to suggest that she write a letter to The Sun, the prominent NYC newspaper at the time, promising her, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The response she requested came from one of the paper’s editors, Francis P. Church, who not only answered the simple question but also addressed the philosophical issues behind it.

Church was a war correspondent during the American Civil War and thought the great suffering he saw corresponded to a lack of hope and faith in much of society. Church went on to be the lead editorial writer on his brother’s newspaper, The New York Sun, and that enabled him to write his most famous editorial, “Is There a Santa Claus?,” placing him in the history of Christmas forever.

In answering the letter, he addressed a higher ideal that had been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. That skepticism can still be found more than a century later––even more so in our digital age of new “everything” media. This whole idea of discussing Santa is almost like discussing politics and religion. Church’s editorial has spawned numerous movies and TV specials, and Macy’s has wrapped its annual “Believe” campaign around it (thus commercializing it), but I think his message is important for believers and skeptics alike.

Here is an excerpt of the editorial:

“VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, VIRGINIA, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.”

“Yes, VIRGINIA, 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.”

“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.”

“… there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, 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.”

Little Virginia O’Hanlon’s life was inspired by that editorial––she went on to get her master’s degree from Columbia University in 1912 and her doctorate from Fordham University. These were the years of the women’s suffrage movement, and a highly educated woman was rare, especially before women won the right to vote in 1919. Virginia spent her career as an educator and received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her life.

In an interview with CBS radio in 1963, Virginia made this comment about the editorial:

“The older I grow, the more I realize what a perfect philosophy it is for life. Then, having been the recipient of such kindness—as Mr. Church writing to me, a little child—I feel a sort of responsibility about living up to some of the ideals … It’s brought into my life many, many interesting and kind things that I don’t think would have ever been there if I hadn’t written that letter and he hadn’t to answered it so eloquently…. The older I grow the more I read into it, and the more I see what it means to other people to have such a firm conviction in the best things in life — faith, love, poetry, romance.”

As we wrap our packages, it’s nice to watch our team wrap itself around a good cause. The real joy comes from knowing you are helping someone who is in need without expecting anything in return in the way of recognition. This joy of giving reminds us of what the season is all about. Being anonymous to the people we are helping brings out a kindness, a sense that some ideals are worth living up to … even being Santa Claus to one little girl.

“He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, VIRGINIA, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

Happy Holidays!

Author: Tom Caska

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