Santa Claus and a Civics Lesson

A 115-year-old editorial on the existence of Santa Claus sheds light on the future of civics in America.
by | December 2012
AP/Alex Brandon

Paul W. Taylor

Paul W. Taylor is the editor of Governing, Chief Content Officer for e.Republic, Inc. and senior advisor to the Center for Digital Government.

Yes, Abigael, it made us want to cry too. Abigael Evans is the 4-year-old Colorado girl whose tearful, frustrated video rant over the seemingly endless election campaign went viral in October. This year’s presidential campaign cost an estimated $9 billion and left us all wanting less.

Coming this time of year, Abigael’s troubles reminded me of an 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who brought her concerns to the New York’s The Sun newspaper 115 years ago. Perhaps you remember her question: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The response Virginia received was written by the newspaper’s editor Francis Pharcellus Church and went on to become the most reprinted editorial ever. Church’s approach may provide clues as to how we can shape our response to the big question of our day -- not about election spending (because that’s just a symptom) -- but about the future of our civic life together.

Church begins his response by saying that Virginia’s Santa-doubting friends are wrong, having “been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” Findings from the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Generation Opportunity suggest young voters in states it polled -- Florida, Maine, Michigan and New Mexico -- did not succumb to the image makers as Virginia’s little friends did. Fewer than 10 percent of respondents in all surveyed states, and in most cases only 4 or 5 percent, said they let candidate charisma or likability distract them from their positions on jobs, debt, sustainability and a strong economic future.

There are other hopeful signs that at least some young voters have found new ways to overcome Church’s caution that, “They do not believe except they see.” An online civics education startup founded by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, called iCivics, tries to counter declining civic knowledge. The small iCivics team has created 20 immersive, interactive online games to introduce kids to unseen public institutions and processes that will at least inform the mind if not always “make glad the heart of childhood.”

Evidence that the most hopeful developments that demonstrate the prospects for renewed civics is real may be with kids themselves, in whom according to Church, “love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

Consider the civic caper pulled off by Lindsey, Richard and Adam Goff, the three young children of author, attorney and activist Bob Goff. He asked them what they’d do if they had five minutes with a world leader. His children said they’d ask them what they were hoping for, videotape the answers and pass the tapes on to other leaders. The youngest suggested a sleepover at the family’s San Diego home; the eldest said they could visit the leaders in their respective homes instead. They downloaded the mailing address for every leader in the CIA Factbook and invited them all to participate.

The rejection letters swamped their rented post office box, but 27 world leaders said yes, and a world tour began. The kids’ parting gift after each official visit was a small box that contained a key to the front door of the Goff home with a standing invitation to visit. After returning to the U.S., they received a letter from a Latin American leader who said that he would like to use his key.

So long as there is a willingness to ask people around the block or around the world what they are hoping for -- and then listen to the answer -- Church would surely remind us that, “The eternal light with which childhood fills the world [has not been] extinguished.”


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