My little iPhone 4 made its debut in 2010, and was passed into my inexpert hands about four years later. By no stretch of the imagination might this thing be called a current piece of technology, but I love my little phone. It’s chunky, and slow, and not very bright; we were made for each other.
Phone and I are more or less constant companions, and no bike ride is complete without my trusty iPhone in my pocket, earbuds in the ears (helmet on the head) as we toodle down the road. There is, apparently, some way to sort music into a coherent mix called a playlist, but I’ve never managed it, and because I don’t have any real idea as to how to use this thing, most songs have three, if not four, copies sloshing around on the hard drive. So I randomly choose a letter of the alphabet, and away we go, playing the same tune several times in a row before the next one comes on.
On Tuesday I hit the letter X. Which skipped directly to Y, there being no X, and it was “Ye Banks and Braes,” three times, before “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” introduced and performed by Alan Maitland from his collection “Christmas Stories.”
I have absolutely no idea how this came to be on my iPhone. It isn’t in my iTunes, I have no record of purchasing it, but, there it was — “It’s autumn 1897, the rain beats against the tightly closed windows of the old brownstone houses and the first of the season’s Atlantic gales swoops down the broad streets and eddies around the tall buildings. A small girl sits in a cozy bedroom, her head on her hands… She is thinking about Christmas.”
Virginia O’Hanlan, age 8, lived in New York City and, that autumn in 1897, her friends were telling her there was no Santa Claus. Her father, when she asked him if there was a Santa Claus, passed the buck on to the editorial writer of the New York Sun, telling her “if it appears in the Sun, it has to be true.”
This, for you students of logic, is what we’d call an “appeal to authority,” or argumentum ad verecundiam, a form of defeasible reasoning — reasoning that is rationally compelling, but not deductively valid.
While the editor of the New York Sun may have been a positively brilliant man, there is nothing to suggest he had any specialized knowledge on the existence, or lack thereof, of one Santa Claus.
However, she agreed with her father that the Sun was a reliable authority and a source of valid information, so she wrote to the Sun and asked: Is there a Santa Claus?
What do you know about the year 1897, as it sat, poised on the edge of a new century? Did you know that in January of that year the journal Engineering first used the word “computer” to refer to a mechanical calculation device?
Or that between April and June of 1897 the first Boston Marathon ran, Cavendish Laboratories announced the discovery of the electron as a subatomic particle, and John Phillip Sousa performed “Stars and Stripes Forever” for the first time? In Berlin the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was being organized to campaign against the persecution, and for the social recognition, of gay, bisexual and transgender men and women — the first LGBT rights organization in history.
That summer Jack London sailed north to join the Klondike Gold Rush; in the end, he will return with a wealth of stories, not gold. And Felix Hoffmann of the Bayer pharmaceutical company successfully synthesized acetylsalicylic acid, which the company will market under the brand name “Aspirin.” That was gold, white gold.
In the latter part of September, amid a wave of scientific discovery, technical innovation and social change, Francis Pharcellus Church, the cynical, skeptical, curmudgeonly editor of the New York Sun, answered a letter from a little girl in New York City by stating that her friends were wrong, affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age, and yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
Church uses an argumentum ad ignorantiam, which states that a position is true because it has not yet been proven false, and the false generalization that because fairies haven’t been proven not to exist, and love, generosity and devotion do exist, then Santa Claus too must exist.
Santa Claus is the faith of children, he is poetry, he is romance, he is the “light with which childhood fills the world.” Santa Claus not only lives, he will live forever, because children believe, and the alternative is unthinkable.
Which, by the way, is another logical fallacy, called reification, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, when an abstract idea or belief is treated as if it is a physical entity.
It takes no small amount of time to pick apart the logical failings of Church’s famous letter, and supply them with their proper technical terms. You are thinking only a true cynic, devoid of any poetry in their soul, would bother.
Yet Church’s letter is less about the existence of Santa than it is a vision of society. Who are we, Church asks, if we deny poetry, romance, and the innocence of childhood?
As we roll into this Fourth of July week, I would ask a similar question: Who are we? What are our principles, values, and national identity that make up the light that guides us to right and moral actions? Without knowing who we are, what defines us, we are flying blindly, with no true north as our guide.
This is our truth, Virginia: There is a United States. It is the home to the free, it is the home of the brave. It is a largely Christian nation, but also pluralistic, with space for a plethora of different religious beliefs, even if it was a Christian god that granted the nation a set of inalienable rights: to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. A society where all men are created equal, education is a social value, and the freedom of the individual is a given, within the unity of purpose that makes up a community.
And it is a place where, when we have not lived up to those ideals, we understood it to be our responsibility to do better. To repair where we could, to improve, and do better by our fellow citizens: to abolish slavery, to liberate women, to apologize for past injustice, and expand opportunities for all.
We are not perfect. We have a history of accepting rhetoric-laced falsehoods, appeals to fear and emotion, and distortions that dehumanize, demean, scapegoat and destroy lives, all to no purpose other than fear and a consolidation of power.
These false voices rise, and we have overcome those words and those false men, time and time again. We have allowed them to go too far, to do too much damage, before we’ve asked, “Have you no shame?”
But we have risen, and we have endured, on the strength of knowing who we are: We are powered by freedom, strengthened by unity.
It isn’t perfect, this place where I live, but it is worth believing in, because decency has a logic all its own. Rather like Santa Claus.
Tamara Burke and her family were longtime residents of Stowe, leaving the Garnache-Morrison Memorial Forest as a gift to the community. She and her husband, the sheep, and a riot of golden retrievers now call Craftsbury home. She continues to work in Stowe. Email letters to email@example.com.