The famous Christmas windows at Macy's 34th Street store in New York City this year tell the story of Virginia O'Hanlon, famous for her 1897 letter to the The Sun asking to know the truth about Santa Claus.
"Dear Editor," she wrote. "I am 8 years old. Some of my little 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 clever displays relate Virginia's doubts and questions, her parents' reassurances, and of course The Sun's now-famous reply: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
Virginia's little friends, The Sun wrote, were 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. … (Santa Claus) exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy."
And perhaps it's silly, but that message is a rather powerful one to me. It speaks of imagination over harsh realism, of faith over doubt, and of the rather powerful nature of a simple choice to believe in something. And, clearly, I'm not really talking about Santa Claus anymore.
Broadly considered, the concept is the same as one described by Elder Bruce C. Hafen in a 1974 Ensign article:
“A few years ago,” Elder Hafen wrote, “a university student related to his priesthood quorum a boyhood experience that happened just after he had been ordained a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood. He had lived on a farm and had been promised that a calf about to be born would be his very own to raise. One summer morning when his parents were away, he was working in the barn when the expectant cow began to calve prematurely. He watched in great amazement as the little calf was born and then, without warning, the mother cow suddenly rolled over the calf. She was trying to kill it. In his heart he cried out to the Lord for help. Not thinking about how much more the cow weighed than he did, he pushed on her with all his strength and somehow moved her away. He picked up the lifeless calf in his arms and, brokenhearted, looked at it, the tears running down his cheeks. Then he remembered that he now held the priesthood and had every right to pray for additional help. So he prayed from the depths of his boyish, believing heart. Before long, the little animal began breathing again. He knew his prayer had been heard.
"After relating this story, the tears welled up in his eyes, and he said, 'Brethren, I tell you that story because I don’t think I would do now what I did then. Now that I am older, less naive, and more experienced, I "know better" than to expect help in that kind of situation. I am not sure I would believe now, even if I relived that experience, that the calf’s survival was anything more than a coincidence. I don’t understand what has happened to me since that time, but I sense that something has gone wrong.'"
If anything, our age today is even more skeptical than was Virginia's, and we've all probably experienced something of the “learned wisdom” that young man spoke of — the kind that makes childlike faith feel like naivete and tiny miracles look like major coincidences.
But what the story of Virginia O'Hanlon is to me is a reminder that sometimes the kind of belief that can uplift and strengthen — the kind that gives life “its highest beauty and joy” — really can be as simple as a choice. It happens when we choose faith over doubt, when we trust in the path the Lord has asked us to walk, and we let our hearts believe that his hand truly is in all things.
And in time, as Elder Hafen, who now serves as the St. George Utah Temple president, taught, a believing heart will also be a faithful heart. “Thereby,” he wrote, “does belief lead to action. … After a few seasons of … doing what believers do, the faithful, believing heart becomes more and more a knowing heart.”
I suppose that's not necessarily a heart that knows there's a Santa Claus, but I do believe it's one that acknowledges the truth of The Sun's assertion that “nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world” — and then chooses to believe that the Lord's hand is in it all.