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  1. Opinion

Santa, we're making a list and fact-checking it twice

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But what would modern fact-checkers make of the details asserted in the popular narrative? Down the chimney? Up in smoke? Let’s seek out sources to sort through the myth, the man and the magic.
Published Dec. 20, 2013

Good reporters have always checked things out. Arguably the most famous case of fact-checking — long before the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact lit its first pants on fire — goes back to Sept. 21, 1897. It appeared in an unsigned editorial in the New York Sun, titled "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." The author was Francis Pharcellus Church, a former Civil War correspondent, who has earned a place as a patron saint of fact-checking.

His editorial — described as "the most copied" in newspaper history — responded to a query from an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon. The daughter of a medical doctor on New York's Upper West Side, Virginia wrote:

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 grew up to become a well-respected educator. She died in 1971. Her story and the editorial it inspired have become part of Americana, as evidenced by their retelling in a children's book, television drama, a classical music cantata, an animated TV special, a made-for-TV movie, a holiday musical and much more.

While I can cite no empirical evidence, it is possible that the most quoted sentence in the history of newspapers is the one that begins this paragraph:

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 it 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 eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Which leads us to the following question: What would have happened if Virginia had lived in our time? What if she had submitted her question to the editors of the Tampa Bay Times? Armed with the fact-checking machinery of 2013, how would the editorialists have replied?

I don't work for PolitiFact, folks. Their realm is the dreary world of politics. This essay has a higher calling: to examine one of the most powerful popular stories ever told, and to test the common claims about Santa Claus against the available or imaginable evidence. Up, up and away:

Claim #1: Because you can't see the "real" Santa, he must not exist.

Francis Church disposed of this argument in 1897: "Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world." But that is a fanciful argument. How about one from science? In 1964 a physicist named Peter Higgs tried to solve one of the world's most puzzling questions: Where does all matter come from? He posited the existence of an invisible subatomic particle that became known as the Higgs boson. It took almost a half-century but scientists using supercolliders were finally able to identify the famous "God particle," not from its visual presence but from its effects. Higgs just won a Nobel Prize. Even if you cannot see Santa, you can see his effects.

We rate this claim: False.

Claim #2: Santa Claus is a fat white guy.

The claim leans on artistic representations of the character known variously as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and St. Nick. We did a Google image search on these names, and it's clear that the figure is consistently portrayed as "portly." There are no thin Santas. On the other hand, there are pictures in which he appears almost morbidly obese. While some might see these as a reflection of seasonal plenty, others may detect a projection of America's horrible dietary habits. In some images, Santa has a big belly, but in others he looks more like an offensive lineman dressed against the cold in a bulky red suit. As for Santa's being white, we don't need to rely on what Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly says, we need only go back to the earliest origins of Santa — St. Nicholas of Bari — who was born in what is now Turkey. He most likely had a swarthy complexion. And we have evidence that Santa has a kind of benevolent chameleon quality that allows him to appear in the ethnicity of the children he is serving.

We rate this claim as: Half True.

Claim #3: Santa lives at the North Pole.

Several countries claim an official residence for Santa. The only common element for these conflicting claims is an icy northern domain, which lends credence to the North Pole, where these various land masses converge. Much weight must be given to the activities of the North American Air Defense Command, which has tracked Santa's Christmas Eve travels since 1958. Canada has even designated a postal code for the North Pole: H0H 0H0, a reference to SC's most famous and oft-repeated saying. We have no evidence to back the claim that Mr. Claus is concerned by the shrinkage of the polar ice cap due to global warming.

We rate this claim: True.

Claim #4: Santa comes down the chimney.

Of all the myths surrounding Santa and his activities, this one is the most problematic, especially for Floridians, where chimneys are the exception rather than the rule. It is well-accepted that many religious traditions derive their origins from pagan rituals, and this may be one of them. In stories about the Norse gods, Odin was said to enter homes during celebrations of the solstice down chimneys and through other apertures.

Given Santa's girth, the narrow shaft of chimneys, the bulk of presents, and the obvious dangers of descending backwards into flames, we rate this claim: Pants on Fire.

Claim #5: The cult of Santa commercializes the feast, diverting attention from what should be its true religious meaning.

This turns out to be an antique claim, first promulgated by Puritans and Calvinists, who disapproved of the buoyant joy associated with the Christmas holiday in general. But it was that same Puritan ethic that created the foundations for a free-market economy, one that depends, in large measure, upon how much money consumers spend around the holidays. That said, there is ample evidence that all the attention on gift-giving can degenerate into selfish gift-wanting. For every child who exults on getting a bike, there is another disappointed in not getting a BB gun (yes, you will shoot your eye out, kid). Why are so many people depressed around the holidays? It may be because the simpler, more humble expressions of the season have been lost.

We rate this claim: Half True.

Claim #6: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

We'll leave the last words to Francis Church: "No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."

We rate this claim: Mostly True.

Roy Peter Clark does not work for PolitiFact. He teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the stock of the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times." He can be reached at rclark@poynter.org

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