One week to go until Christmas and Santa Claus is everywhere.
He sits on overstuffed chairs in the malls. He is perched on rooftops with blinking lights outlining his jolly red suit. There's even a Santa at my neighborhood liquor store, popping up and down out of a cardboard chimney and looking as though he might have been sampling the cognacs on the shelf nearby.
I wonder how many children are taking it all in, and this year will twist their skeptical faces up toward mothers and fathers, and ask, "Is there really a Santa Claus?"
No one ever answered that question more eloquently than the editor of the New York Sun who responded to the inquiry of a little girl 97 years ago. We all know his answer, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
When I reread that famous column recently, two thoughts occurred to me. The first was that I probably will never be able to write as well as Francis Pharcellus Church.
My second thought was how marvelously innocent both the newspaper editor and his child questioner seem.
Life was different then. Newspaper editors had no worries about competition from radio, television or Internet. Readers were loyal and trusting. Little Virginia O'Hanlon wrote to the newspaper in the first place because her father had told her, "If you see it in the Sun, it's so."
The life of an 8-year-old girl living in New York City in 1897 was different, too. Virginia knew nothing about AIDS or AK-47s, condoms or crack.
So, when she demanded, "Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?" Mr. Church could answer with confidence in the innocence of childhood and in a life devoid of cynicism.
In his reply on Sept. 21, 1897, he answers: "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."
He continues: "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 this world."
Reading those words today, they strike me as somehow quaint. If a child were to write me to ask if Santa Claus is real, I don't think I would answer with a discussion of wonders that are unseen and unseeable.
How can we in 1994 share Mr. Church's fanciful vision of fairies dancing on lawns, when children lie dead on sidewalks, shot in the cross-fire of drug gangs? How do we talk of love and generosity and devotion when we see mothers drowning and burning their children? How dare we assume that children know beauty and joy, when 13-year-old prostitutes walk the streets?
Mr. Church writes of "faith, fancy, poetry, love and romance," but the public discourse today is dominated by arguments over abortion, school prayer, teen-aged mothers, crack-addicted babies and deadbeat dads.
Reality rudely intrudes upon our image of what childhood should be.
According to Advocates for Children and Youth Inc. in Baltimore, one in 10 Maryland children lives in poverty. More than one-quarter of the residents in homeless shelters are children.
Teen-aged mothers were common a century ago, but it was different then. These mothers were usually married and the fathers worked to support the families. Today, one out of every 10 children is born to a teen mother; five out of six teen mothers are single. One out of every five children in Maryland lives in a single-parent family.
Of course, the lives of children born in poverty have never been filled with candy canes and sugar plums. A hundred years ago, children labored in mines and factories. They begged on the streets or were sent to orphanages.
Was Mr. Church just turning a blind eye to the ills of his day and writing about a dreamy world that did not exist?
In 1897, the country was rocked with labor disputes between emerging unions and powerful robber barons. Jim Crow was the law of the land. Women were disenfranchised. The country was on the brink of war with Spain.
From what source did Francis Pharcellus Church draw his optimism?
"Alas! How dreary the world would be if there were no Santa Claus," he writes. "It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias."
Today as Christmas approaches, I do not find myself wondering if there is a Santa Claus. I have another question.
Please tell me the truth, is there a Virginia?
Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.