EARLIER THIS Christmas season, New Hampshire Public Radio surveyed newspapers about how they would answer the classic letter that 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon sent to the New York Sun in 1897: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?’’
The answer, of course, is yes - there always has been, and always will be. As editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church wrote in the Sun: “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist . . .’’
This year, however, the question seems more apt, because the evidence against Santa is greater. More people are suffering than usual, and there are deeper questions about the long-term economy, and what it is doing to people’s jobs and pensions and benefits.
Across the globe, nations are wrestling with the need to be competitive without sacrificing the essential welfare of their citizens. In this country, which for so long lived so well off its own resources and industriousness, the mere existence of the challenge seems an affront. And yet it must be answered, and there is some value in doing so in the spirit of the season.
The magic of Santa Claus is not only that he lives in people’s hearts but also in their deeds: He exists in the belief that generosity of spirit can elevate people everywhere. He is the counterpoint to competitiveness, the conscience that stands in the face of what Church called “a skeptical age.’’
Since Church’s day, Americans’ capacity for skepticism has only grown. “Santa Claus,’’ in debates over public policy, has come to signify a soft heart and unwarranted help for the undeserving. Yet a sense of collective action and responsibility is especially vital now, as concerns over one’s own prospects provide ready excuses to ignore others, and the need to compete overseas gives companies license to shed workers and chop benefits.
This country can achieve the efficiency necessary for riches in the global economy, but only if it makes a concurrent commitment to promoting the security and well-being of all its people. There must be a greater safety net to protect the jobless, the homeless, those seeking affordable health care, and all of their children.
On Christmas, the spirit of Santa Claus that inspired the curiosity of Virginia O’Hanlon and the heartwarming reassurance of Francis Pharcellus Church is visible to all. The challenge for 2010 is to make the spirit of this season last throughout the year, and to make it the basis of a fair and lasting prosperity for years to come.