For many years, I've revisited the story of Virginia O'Hanlon and her letter to the editor of the Sun at some point during this time of year, and I'm happy to revisit it with you again here on the blog. It's one of those magical Christmas stories that never fails to warm my heart. There are several prompts for poems that follow, as well as a letter written by Mark Twain to his daughter.
Over a hundred years ago, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a
letter to the editor of New York’s Sun,
and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21, 1897.
The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become
history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in
dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and
stamps. I've read Virginia's letter and Francis Church's reply every year
during December for many years. I hope it will touch your heart as much as it
always touches mine.
I am 8 years old.
Some of my
little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
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.
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.
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 they 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 may tear
apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but 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.
Claus! Thank God! 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.
The first poem I ever had published was a letter to Santa that I wrote
in December of 1956 (I had just turned 8 years old and still believed in Santa
Claus). My poem was published in the Grover Cleveland Elementary School
newspaper. Happily, my mom saved all those early writings, and I have an
original copy of the newspaper.
Your prompt for this week is to write a letter to Santa in which you
list the things that you wish for. These needn’t be material things! You may
also consider writing about what you believe or need to believe.
1. Think in terms of non-material gifts you’d like to receive. (For
example: spiritual well-being, healing from (and cures for) illnesses, an end
to homelessness and hunger, peace in the world.)
2. Think about your family members and friends. What would you most
like for them?
3. Is there a relationship in your life that needs healing? What would
you ask for in terms of that relationship?
4. What about our world? What would you ask for?
5. Is there something you want or need to believe? How would you ask
for that belief?
1. Observe the usual caveats: avoid the passive voice, eliminate “ing”
endings wherever you can, don’t use too many adjectives.
2. Use more
one-syllable words than multi-syllable words in your last couple of lines
(think in terms of strong verbs and no superfluous language).
3. Try (minimal)
repetition from another part of the poem—sometimes this can work very well.
4. Try to link the
end of your poem to the beginning but not overtly—and don’t over-write.
5. Write beyond the last line, then go
back and find the last line hidden in what you’ve written.
6. Leave your reader
something to reflect upon.
7. Point toward
something broader than the obvious content of your poem.
8. You may want to try a prose poem
or to use letter format. Here's a letter from Santa Claus that Mark Twain wrote
for his daughter Susie:
Twain's Letter from Santa Claus
for His Daughter Susie
Palace of St. Nicholas
In the Moon
MY DEAR SUSIE CLEMENS:
I have received and read all the
letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your
mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have
written me with your own hands--for although you did not use any characters
that are in grown peoples' alphabet, you used the characters that all children
in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use; and as all my subjects in
the moon are children and use no character but that, you will easily understand
that I can read your and your baby sister's jagged and fantastic marks without
any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated
through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read
English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things
which you and the baby ordered in your own letters—I went down your chimney at
midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself—and kissed both of
you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice mannered, and about
the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letter which you
dictated there were some words which I could not make out for certain, and one
or two small orders which I could not fill because we ran out of stock. Our
last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls has just gone to a very poor little
child in the North Star away up, in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your
mama can show you that star and you will say: "Little Snow Flake,"
(for that is the child's name) "I'm glad you got that furniture, for you
need it more than I." That is, you must write that, with your own hand,
and Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it she wouldn't hear
you. Make your letter light and thin, for the distance is great and the postage
There was a word or two in your
mama's letter which I couldn't be certain of. I took it to be "a trunk
full of doll's clothes." Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door
about nine o'clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody and I
must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen doorbell rings, George must
be blindfolded and sent to open the door. Then he must go back to the dining
room or the china closet and take the cook with him. You must tell George he
must walk on tiptoe and not speak—otherwise he will die someday. Then you must
go up to the nursery and stand on a chair or the nurse's bed and put your car
to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen and when I whistle through
it you must speak in the tube and say, "Welcome, Santa Claus!" Then I
will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not. If you say it was, I shall
ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a
nice color and then you must tell me every single thing in detail which you
want the trunk to contain. Then when I say "Good-by and a merry Christmas
to my little Susie Clemens," you must say "Good-by, good old Santa
Claus, I thank you very much and please tell that little Snow Flake I will look
at her star tonight and she must look down here—I will be right in the west bay
window; and every fine night I will look at her star and say, 'I know somebody
up there and like her, too.' " Then you must go down into the library and
make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, and everybody
must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon and get those things
and in a few minutes I will come down the chimney that belongs to the fireplace
that is in the hall—if it is a trunk you want—because I couldn't get such a
thing as a trunk down the nursery chimney, you know.
People may talk if they want,
until they hear my footsteps in the hall. Then you tell them to keep quiet a
little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my footsteps
at all—so you may go now and then and peep through the dining-room doors, and
by and by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the
drawing room-for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall,
you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven't time to do
such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag—else he will die someday.
You must watch George and not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave
a stain on the marble, George must not holystone it away. Leave it there always
in memory of my visit; and whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you
must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty and
somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus's boot made on the
marble, what will you say, little sweetheart?
Good-by for a few minutes, till
I come down to the world and ring the kitchen doorbell.
Your loving SANTA CLAUS
Whom people sometimes call "The Man in the Moon"
Chaucey and I wish all of you happy, healthy holidays
and the best
blessings of this festive season.
May the coming year bring you good health,
much happiness, and all the things that you love!
I’ll resume posting in January 2020!
In the meantime, celebrate the season!