Signed Virginia O'Hanlon was given to me: "I...

THIS LETTER

December 23, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THIS LETTER signed Virginia O'Hanlon was given to me: "I am 8 years old. Some of my 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, your little friends are right. There used to be a Santa Claus, but there isn't any more. He was bumped off. I think the Republicans did it.

RTC ...* * * The first reference to "Santa Claus" in American letters was in according to the Dictionary of American English. That means it was probably widely used in speech by then. But that Santa Claus, a/k/a Saint Nicholas, was envisioned as a stern, somber Christian bishop from Asia Minor. It wasn't till 1822 that the chubby, bearded, jolly, reindeer-driving, toy-distributing character was created. That was in the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" by Clement Moore.

A philanthropist whose name has never been revealed read the poem and assumed the Santa identity. Santa kept at it till the mid-20th century. Now, even little children know that a man can't live that long, unchanging. A succession of men wore the Santa costume and performed the Santa chores. When one got too old to go on, he chose a trusted younger aide to take his place. Each successor pretended to be, literally, his predecessor.

So, yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus from the 1820s till well into this century. He was widely loved and admired. He was a non-partisan hero. The Democrats were for him. The Whigs were for him. The Republicans were for him. The Populists were. The Progressives.

But then, some Republicans began to turn against him. In 1935 former President Herbert Hoover said to a party gathering, "A good many things go around in the dark besides Santa Claus." Though he may have meant to differentiate between good stealthy gift givers and bad ones (i.e. New Dealers), he got a lot of his fellow conservatives thinking anti-Santa thoughts.

In 1936 former New York Gov. Al Smith, a Democrat who had turned against his party's leader, Franklin D. Roosevelt, said in a pro-Republican speech, "nobody shoots at Santa Claus." The implication was clear: Perhaps someone ought to!

By 1964, Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee that year, called for "a frontal attack against Santa Claus."

Then someone shot Santa. The arrested man was not a registered Republican, but I've always had my doubts that he was the true assassin. Like many people, I reject the "lone gunman" theory. And I certainly don't believe a bullet could go through a fat guy and eight reindeer and remain in a pristine state. I think it was a political conspiracy.

At any rate, that was the end of Santa. No one wanted the job any more. It wasn't safe.

So today it is just a franchise operation, with tens of thousands of temps in fake beards in every mall in the land. Sorry, Virginia.

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