A Leading Article in THE TIMES, 26 December 2018

Are you still a believer in Santa?” This question was posed in the White House on Christmas Eve by President Trump as he answered a phone call from a boy named Coleman, aged seven. Coleman was seeking information about the progress of Santa’s journey across the skies. Mr Trump was unforthcoming on this astronomical question, but added: “Because at seven, it’s marginal, right?”

Every adult at some time considers how best to answer children’s curiosity about Santa Claus. No one can fault Mr Trump for accuracy, but his answer might have been stronger for a sense of poetry. Santa matters and he belongs to us all.

A celebrated answer to the Santa conundrum was made by Francis Pharcellus Church, editor of the New York Sun, in 1897. A girl called Virginia O’Hanlon, aged eight, had written to the newspaper in consternation as friends had told her that Santa was a myth. She sought the truth. And, in a leader column, Church unhesitatingly declared it: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”

This was eloquent and true. The original St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in the 4th century, is the patron saint of children. He has a counterpart in many cultures. And his role fulfils a universal human need. A secular variant is found in the short story The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1904) by Jerome K Jerome, in which a stranger rooms at a boarding house for three months. By the end of his stay, the vindictive lodgers have come to appreciate each other’s finer selves.

Mr Trump should perhaps rewatch the famous documentary film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which a jovial old man insists against naysayers that he is Santa. And an apparently impossible gift is delivered to those who believe. With such compelling evidence, the president would surely grant that Coleman has grounds for trust in Santa.