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Virginia's Big Question

THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2008)


The Solstice Season is the time of year when our culture most deeply responds to the need for the symbolic life and its importance to our psychological and spiritual well being. How we hold on to this side of reality and its importance in our life is an old question. For instance in 1897 eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon sent a letter to the New York Sun newspaper with her concerns about the existence of Santa Claus. “Some of my friends,” she wrote, “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 newspaper was put on the spot, as many parents often are, since journalism is expected to report the facts of life and the truth of our daily lives. Journalist Francis P. Church rose to the occasion, and penned this reply.

Virginia, your friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds . . . 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 our life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We would have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. . . No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and lives forever. A 1,000 years from now, Virginia, nay 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

With the advent of film in the 20th century, holiday films have often taken up the call of Francis Church to echo his message. One of the most well known is the movie Miracle on 34th Street written for the screen in 1947 and remade in 1994. In this story it is a mother and her young daughter who carry the skepticism; a department store Santa, who claims he is the real Kris Kringle, manages to keep the disbelief at bay and the spirit and mystery of Santa alive. The department store psychologist attempts to have his sanity questioned and he is put on trial. His young attorney wins the case when thousands of letters pour into the courthouse addressed to Santa Claus. If so many people are writing to him, then he must be real.

The film Prancer that arrived in theatres in 1990 is another good example of this form of film drama. Amidst mysterious coincidences a young girl comes to believe that a wounded reindeer she encounters is the real Prancer, whose replica had fallen from the town’s street display of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer. Despite the doubt that surrounds her she perseveres in trying to assist Prancer so he can rejoin Santa. Her belief rekindles the spirit of the town in a poignant way. The story includes a touching newspaper article written by a local journalist and a moving reading of a version of “Virginia’s Big Question” by Sam Elliott, who plays the girl’s stressed and bereft father.

In these turbulent economic and political times we’d like to encourage you to take in at least one of these forms of holiday films in which the power of the imagination is rekindled and affirmed. If holiday fare isn’t your special cup of tea, then we’d recommend this past year’s Lars and the Real Girl as a remarkable example of the healing power of the imagination.

Editor: Steve Galipeau

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