‘I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say that there is no Santa Claus … Please tell me the truth.” Virginia O’Hanlon, 1897, a letter to the New York Sun.
Virginia, I only wish that I could tell you your little friends were wrong, that God is in his Heaven, Santa in his workshop and all is right with the world of good girls and boys.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Every day while you play, good girls and boys around the world suffer and die in prisons, brothels and labour camps.
Across the sea, good little children shiver in their beds at the sound of an airplane, and wonder when their turn will come to die under the rubble of their homes.
What, Santa Claus real? You might as well say that there is no such thing as hunger, that poor children never sleep on the street while bankers bloat themselves on six-figure salaries.
Virginia, some people even complain that not enough children are in prison.
They say this though they know that to imprison a child is the surest way to turn a single mistake into a life of crime.
Why do they want to lock away the children? Because they are so poor in spirit as to hate and fear the young.
What a world it would be, if only a jolly elf could come down once a year, and bring sweetness, light and plum pudding to all the children of the world, one half of whom go without enough to eat.
What a better place if one magic sled could do the job that a hundred aid organizations can never manage, because there are never enough resources. Santa Claus won’t be coming to the murdered children of Fallujah this year, nor to the little sex slaves of Bangkok.
He won’t be visiting the children crippled by cluster bombs or torn open by shrapnel.
There will be no Santa for the orphans of Afghanistan or Palestine.
In the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, there will be no peace this Christmas.
Santa Claus does not exist, as surely as hatred and greed and violence rule the world.
Alas Virginia, how dreary life is for Santa’s real helpers, the Asian children who labour to manufacture the war toys under your tree.
There’s no childlike faith on the factory floor, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable their daily existence.
Every day around the world, the lights of childhood are snuffed out by war, famine, and disease.
Children go without education, without proper clothing, without clean water, without homes, without medicine or food.
Without a safe place to play, away from the guns and the tanks. Without a childhood.
No Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus.
He is only a part of our annual pretense that the 19th century, century of poor houses and public hangings, was a better, more innocent time than this.
We play this charade although we know it was in fact a brutal era of unconscionable wealth for a few made possible by the slavery of many, a time in which much of the world still lives, and back toward which the rest of us are rushing at ever increasing speed.
Santa Claus real?
If he were, what a back-breaking load of coal his poor reindeer must carry to the rooftops of those corporations that employ third-world children in airless factories, guzzling the earth’s resources and destroying its atmosphere to create useless junk you and your friends will break and throw in the landfill before the new year.
Alas, Virginia, such children as these will not be placated with the charming myth of an infinitely generous bearded gnome, who brings the fruits of their slavery into the homes of more fortunate children.
Believe in Santa Claus?
You might as well believe in the hypocrites who use religion to justify war, who celebrate the birth of Jesus and fatten their wallets on the murder of innocents and the enslavement of the poor.
Until your childish frame grows old, until you stretch it out for its last sleep, fight.
Fight against militarism, greed, and indifference.
Fight against charming lies and ugly truths. Never cease demanding that every day for every child be, if not Christmas, then at least a decent day on Earth.
No Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus, just yet.
But there can be if we try hard enough.
Let’s start by making a big wish, not for lots of presents, or a glimpse of Santa Claus, or fairies on our lawn, but for something even more fundamental to the spirit of Christmas.
Let’s wish for Peace on Earth, and Goodwill to All.
And then for once let’s act like the words mean something.
This column first appeared in December 2004.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.