FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Merry Christmas To All, And To All a Good Night!

This will likely be my last post until after Christmas... so I'm taking this time to wish you and yours a safe and happy holiday (especially for those of you travelling through the Midwest this week). I also want to thank all those who have supported FutureWire over the past six months and made it a success.

It would seem that a blog dedicated to the future wouldn't have a lot to say about Christmas, a holiday that's all about reminiscing, tradition and nostalgia. Everyone wants an old-fashioned Christmas; no one wants a futuristic one. Recall that in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the Spirits of Christmases Past and Present were amiable sorts... but the Spirit of Christmases to Come was to be feared.

But allow me to set aside my futurist hat for a moment and don my other hat -- that of a "citizen journalist." And in that great journalistic tradition (yes, even in the blogosphere, some traditions must hold fast), I'd like to quote a passage that, as much as anything ever written, captures what Christmas is all about.

Faithfully, newspapers around the world reprint this every season. You've probably read it a million times... yet while it was written over a century ago, it never gets old, cliched or irrelevant. I'm referring to young Virginia O'Hanlon's famous letter to the long-defunct New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus, and editorial writer Francis P. Church's equally famous reply:

Dear Editor—

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?

Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, 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 external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe 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 you 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 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, 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.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. [N.B. For more on the history of this letter, click here.]

The letter was first published in 1897, but it could have been written yesterday. The unstated charm of it, of course, comes when you realize that it would have been so easy for Mr. Church to have sent little Virginia's letter to the "circular file," muttering something about dumb kids wasting his time. And it would have been so easy for Virginia to have joined the ranks of the cynical and disillusioned as a result. But thanks to the earnestness of both, that's not what happened. And that's what makes it special. Would a modern child consider writing such a letter to, say, the New York Times or CNN? Would one of their editors take the time to respond so eloquently?

Neither Virginia nor Francis Church could have fathomed such a thing as the Internet, but as you can see, their exchange lives on in cyberspace. And in all likelihood, our great-grandchildren will read and re-read it on December days to come, and be moved by it every time.

One of my goals with FutureWire has been to help readers make sense of a world that's constantly changing. Yet some things don't change, and shoudn't change. Christmas, thankfully, is one of them. Beyond the hype, hysteria and commercialism, Christmas is good for the soul, no matter how you celebrate it.

Holidays give us "permission" to do things we're too self-conscious to do otherwise. Halloween allows us to dress up as someone other than ourselves. Valentine's Day helps the romantically-challenged express their affections. On Mother's Day and Father's Day, we can tell Mom and Dad how much we love them without embarassment. Likewise, Christmas allows us to relive our childhoods... or even reconstruct them. Through Christmas, we can celebrate all that's good and charitable and fun without a hint of irony. And in a frightening, all-too-adult world, that's therapeutic. The "true meaning of Christmas," after all, is rooted in childhood innocence, through which even the most jaded of us have been conditioned all our lives to love it. If nothing else, it's the one day all year when the outside world reliably grinds to a halt, when all adult cares and worries are set aside. It's the one day our secular culture continues to hold sacred, honoring the birth of one child by celebrating all children.

The need to celebrate at this time of year goes back to the dawn of recorded history. In European culture, "Christmas" predates the birth of Christ by thousands of years. Even those neolithic people, so long ago, recognized the need for a celebration during an otherwise bleak time of year. And in a couple of days, Christians everywhere will rejoice in the birthday of Jesus.

So with that, I repeat my yuletide wish for you, whatever your plans for this holiday.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

P.S. Graphics for this post were swiped from ELMS Puzzles Christmas Gallery