Gregory Dennis: The many faces of Santa Claus

In a season of giving and getting presents, most of us are looking forward to what’s going to be under the Christmas tree this coming Monday. The days are ripe with anticipation of gifts from Santa Claus and his elves.
But what if I told you that Santa had already arrived and has been giving out presents all year?
Bear with me for a moment as we look back 120 years, to the Sept. 21, 1897, edition of The New York Sun. On that day in The Sun there appeared a letter to the editor and the editor’s response.
“Dear Editor, I am 8 years old,” the letter began. “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? (Signed) Virginia O’Hanlon, 115 West Ninety Fifth Street.”
The editor replied in part:
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds…
“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 if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”
“Nobody sees Santa Claus,” the editor added, “but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”
To which I would add: Even though we may not see these things directly, the magic of Santa Claus gives presents every day of the year.
These presents usually arrive in the smallest ways. But if we take care to notice them, they are no less heartening than if they were physically delivered by a right jolly old elf, with a broad face and a little round belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly.
I saw presents from Santa Claus this year in many ways. Among them:
•  The owner of the auto repair shop who left the warmth of his office to grab a gauge and air hose, to inflate my car tires in 15-degree weather and take not a nickel in payment.
•  The spaciously expanded Middlebury Co-op that Santa’s helpers completed this year — providing an even better selection of food and drink along with more support for local farmers and sustainable agriculture.
•  The teachers and staff that make Addison County schools among the best in Vermont. Plus the countless hours of effort by volunteer school boards to wrestle with the changing educational landscape and ever-tighter budgets.
•  The many preservation efforts by government and civic groups that include environmentalists, fishermen and many hunters. (We could also sometimes do better here. We still allow open season on coyotes, for example. And according to VPR, a recent Island Pond meeting held by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to see what could be done to halt the decline of our moose population included servings of cornbread — and moose chili. What were they thinking?)
•  A growing climate of tolerance for diversity. Vermont continues to welcome immigrants. Marriage equality is now woven into the fabric of our communities, and our transgender community is slowly emerging from hiding as acceptance grows. (And yes, we have the occasional setbacks, such as the intolerant response to the presence of Charles Murray on the Middlebury College campus.)
•  The budding “climate economy” campaign by the Vermont Council on Rural Development. The greater Middlebury area is one of the two first Vermont communities to work with VCRD on this. It’s engaging citizens in a broad effort to grow our local economy so it can survive ongoing climate change — and also thrive by taking advantage of sustainable economic opportunities that arise with climate disruption.
•  Other kinds of citizen activism that just won’t quit. It began this year with the Women’s March in Montpelier — the counterpart to over 600,000 people massing in Washington, D.C., and a total of over a million nationwide. Among the universal messages: Hope trumps hate when women help to lead the resistance to an anti-woman, anti-environmental president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Here in Vermont, the Women’s March attracted over 15,000 people to the state capital. So many that they turned Interstate 89 into a parking lot.
•  The activism animating Vermont society continued throughout the year with abundant efforts to counter climate change, despite the apparent indifference to climate change that’s evinced by the policies of Gov. Phil Scott. Meanwhile, organizations like senior centers, homeless shelters, religious congregations and food banks continued their stalwart support for the economically less fortunate among us.
•  The postal clerk who braved the cold to come outside with me and grab an envelope that I’d mistakenly dropped in the outside mailbox. It was one of many moments of good cheer from the always-friendly staff at the Middlebury Post Office. I don’t know how they manage to be consistently pleasant, but it sure is a day brightener.
Santa Claus “lives and lives forever,” The Sun’s editor concluded. “A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.” And adulthood.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas, everyone.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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