'Twas the week before Christmas almost half a lifetime ago - Dec. 20, 1988 - when Inquirer city editor Fran Dauth walked over to my desk in the newsroom with a letter in her hand and a look on her face. "What do you think?" she asked, handing me the letter.

"Is this for real?" I asked. At the time, I was writing a daily metro column called "the Scene," which was frequently the place where readers' flights of fancy found a receptive perch.

In other words, "the Scene" was a nut-job magnet.

But this letter was disturbing for its difference. This was written by a child. There was a return address on the envelope and a listed phone number, so I called that afternoon around 4 o'clock and a little girl answered.

"Hello, is this Marie?"

She sounded much younger than her years. Hers was the tiny, sweet voice of Christmases past, a tonic of innocence for ears sharpened to cynical points by the grindstone of insincere words.

Was this letter part of a school assignment? I asked. Had her parents helped her write it? No, the little girl said, she had written the letter by herself because she thought the newspaper would have the answer.

Well, it was a very good letter, I told her. Thank you, she replied. I promised that I would try to find an answer. Thank you, she said again. Goodbye.

I looked at the letter for a long time, and I wished that she had asked about something easy, the theory of aerodynamics, perhaps, or why water in lakes doesn't sink into the ground. Instead, she wrote:

Dear Editors,

I am 9 and in fourth grade. I am the smartest person in the class. There are a lot of things I don't know. I am writing this letter to ask you a question. I have heard that there is no such thing as Santa Claus. I have heard that there was a Santa Claus but there isn't now. I have also heard that there really is a Santa Claus. Which of these is true?

Sincerely,

Marie Stanek

Woodlynne, N.J.

Twenty-six years ago, I was foolish enough to attempt an answer. I wrote:

I am not the smartest person at the newspaper, Marie, but that's OK because you don't have to be smart to understand the truth about Santa Claus. Before I answer your question, I must tell you about another little girl who wrote to a newspaper years before you, your parents, and maybe even your grandparents, were born.

Her name was Virginia O'Hanlon, and she was just one year younger than you when she wrote to the editors of the New York Sun. Virginia was also confused by the things she had heard about Santa Claus, and a wise editor named Francis P. Church answered her by writing, "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 your life its highest beauty and joy."

But terrible things have happened in the world since Virginia wrote her letter, Marie, things beyond the imagination of the wisest or worst of men and women. Perhaps you have seen some of these terrible things on TV or in books

Perhaps you have seen the faces of children whose eyes have lost the hope of ever seeing Santa Claus, or of knowing love. How could Santa exist in a world where so many children live in pain and die in despair?

How could he not? Marie, the world needs Santa Claus now more than ever.

But what is Santa Claus? This, I think, is where your confusion sets in. You've been told that there is a Santa, that there once was a Santa but there isn't one anymore, and that there never was a Santa.

My answer may confuse you even more, Marie, because all three are true.

Is there a Santa Claus who flies around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer bringing toys to children? Absolutely! That Santa is as real as you or me. But that Santa exists only if you believe.

And Santa knows if you believe in him the same way he knows if you've been naughty or nice. Santa knows these things because (and this is the important part) he lives in your heart. He lives in the hearts of everyone who will let him.

How? I don't know. He's Santa, he can do these things.

Oh, sure, he lives at the North Pole, too, but that's only because that's where he goes when children and parents stop believing. It's awfully cold up there, but Santa doesn't mind so much because there are so many warm hearts to snuggle inside on bleak Arctic nights when the wind howls of hate and the ice groans beneath the weight of human sorrow.

This is the secret of Santa Claus. If you believe, then Santa exists; if you stop believing, Santa no longer exists. Not within your heart, anyway. He goes to the North Pole and waits for the arrival of newborns, or for the return of innocence to hearts filled with doubt.

Santa forgives. He's an easy touch, and his bags are always packed.

My city editor told me that when she was a little girl, she would ask her mother if there was a Santa Claus and her mother would reply, "There is if you want there to be." My city editor said that she did not think that was a good answer when she was a little girl, but that as she grew older, she realized how true it is.

Yes, Marie, there is a Santa Claus, and he lives in a house to which you have the only key.

Clark DeLeon writes regularly for Currents. deleonc88@aol.com