Virginia O'Hanlon was a little girl with a big problem. In all of her eight years, she had never been so confused or so hurt.
Her friends at school were teasing her.
We know something you don't know.
They knew, they were sure, there was no Santa Claus.
This made Virginia cry.
She cried all of the way home from school and was still crying when her father, a doctor, came home from work.
Virginia asked him about Santa Claus. Did he exist? Was he real?
Her father was a good doctor. But he knew his limitations. He could mend a broken arm. But he could not fix a broken heart.
So, he sent her - it turned out - to a specialist. Write a letter, he suggested, to the newspaper. It has a question-and-answer page. Maybe somebody there can solve your problem.
That night, before she went to bed, Virginia wrote her letter. One hundred years ago Sunday, the New York Sun printed its reply. It answered her question in the affirmative:
"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."
As long as I can remember, those two sentences and the rest of the answer to Virginia's letter have moved me.
The writing is beautiful. And, the words sing for all seasons, not just at Christmas. Their message, that believing is more than simply seeing, carries the weight of being both timeless and true.
"Virginia," the Sun's reply began, "your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age."
"The skepticism of a skeptical age."
That phrase always repeats in my ear. It played well in 1897. At the turn of that century, old traditions were being forsaken as the world plunged into the modern machine age.
But that phrase plays even better in 1997. Today, nothing is held sacred. Very little is embraced. Too much is held in contempt and greeted with a yawn, a snicker and a "been there, done that."
No one wants to believe. It's too risky. Decades of assassinations, corruption, recessions and depression have taken their toll. The disasters we have seen have rocked our faith in the unseen. We're afraid to get our hopes up for fear of having them dashed again. It's easier to beskeptical, to be cynical, than to believe.
What writer was so forward-looking 100 years ago? Francis Pharcellus Church.
If Santa Claus could have picked an elf from the staff of the Sun, he could not have come up with a more unlikely choice. In September of 1897, Francis Church was 58 and childless and something of an old grump.
He was also a preacher's kid, the son of a Baptist minister. So, he knew a little something about belief.
But, he also had some firsthand experience in seeing beliefs being put to the test. Francis Church covered the Civil War for the New York Times. He lasted only one year, 1862, in that job. But it was long enough to come away with a lifetime of memories and nightmares of faith lost and lives shattered.
So, into the hands of this old war correspondent came a letter about Santa Claus from an 8-year-old girl. His boss told him to come up with something. Francis Church walked back to his desk grumbling. Everybody expected something sarcastic. Everyone was fooled. They had been "affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see."
Francis Church looked at the world and saw "faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance."
They were his gift to Virginia. And - 100 years later - to us.
To him, "in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding." How could he see so much? Easy. He believed.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.