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With a tip of the hat to The Sun of New York, whose Sept. 21, 1897, response to a questioning 8-year-old reader named Virginia became a holiday classic.

Dear Editor,

I am 55 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Especially during these bad economic times, they say, he doesn't exist. They say I shouldn't waste time writing to ask him to pay for my Christmas cards to constituents, or parties for my friends and me, or even a measly little ice sculpture of a reindeer.

That is why I am writing you. I was always told, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." My little friends don't believe that either - and, frankly, neither do I. But I have no one else to ask. Please tell me the truth: is there a Santa Claus?

Sheila Ann

100 N. Holliday St.

Baltimore 21202

Dear Sheila Ann,

Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. Instead of believing in Santa Claus, they believe only in what they can see in front of them: IRS laws regarding how a nonprofit's money can be distributed, for example, or ethics laws on how public officials can spend private donations.

Pay them no mind. Alas, how dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus. Why, there would be no ice-skating rinks in front of City Hall to celebrate a mayor's inauguration. Or free tickets to the inaugural ball. Or any way for banks and contractors to show the love for their friends in city government - and get a tax break for charitable contributions at the same time!

Yes, Sheila Ann, there is a Santa Claus.

He exists as certainly as love and generosity exist, and they certainly abound in your life, even if affairs can be fleeting and gift cards can expire. Or at least get you in trouble with the state prosecutor.

Sometimes Santa Claus goes by different names, which is why some people don't believe he exists. In your own town, for example, his name is the Baltimore City Foundation.

Hardly anyone ever sees him. Some of your friends on the City Council didn't even know he existed until The Baltimore Sun's James Drew called to ask about this nice man who signs millions of dollars of checks that help not just the poor but also the politically well-connected. You could hire people to watch his office around the clock, and never see him walking in or out.

But that's no proof that he's not real. The most real things in the world are those things we cannot see - faith, truth, romance, $39.7 million sitting in a forgotten account for about a decade.

It's all part of the wonder that is Baltimore, one of the jewels of the city as you yourself might say. As any girl - certainly any girl mayor - knows, the best jewels are the ones you don't pay for yourself but are given to you.

You could have paid for your "Winter Wonderland" inaugural festivities yourself. Or used the nonprofit you created to raise inaugural funds to pay for the ice rink and all those other things you need for a successful party - a band, that reindeer ice sculpture, the security services from a private detective agency.

Instead, the city's largest builder, Whiting-Turner, came up with a $20,000 donation to the foundation, on the very day that you were inaugurated! Who doesn't believe in Santa Claus now, Sheila Ann?

Only a Scrooge would wonder why Whiting-Turner's donation for citywide recreation programs, was used, instead, on a mayor's inauguration party. Only a Scrooge would note how intertwined everything is, with the foundation's treasurer also the head of the city's accounting and payroll services bureau, with the CEO of Whiting-Turner also serving on the foundation's board of directors.

Only a Scrooge would look a gift horse in the mouth as it's being led to City Hall.

So Sheila Ann, you tell those little friends of yours that there is indeed a Santa Claus. He lives, he will live forever, making glad the hearts of all those who believe in him.

Or at least believe that the best things in life aren't necessarily free; they're just paid for by someone else.

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