Originally published on my website Christmas Eve, 2010
Due to it being the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the history of the English language (verified), most people, regardless of their faith, are familiar with this piece, known now to history as “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”
Unsigned at the time of its publication in The Sun in 1897, it was of course written in response to a letter received from eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas. Though over time there has been some amount of scholarly doubt as to whether or not an eight year old actually penned the letter bearing her name (appearing as “Virginia O’Hanlon” in the paper), the woman to whom the letter has been attributed lived a life that was rather well documented. Her Wikipedia page, as well as other more legitimate sources cover her life in plentiful, if not meticulous detail. Virginia herself received fan mail for the rest of her life, to which she graciously responded. She indicated near the end of her life that the attention she received as a result of her famous letter had affected her life in a positive way.
Several movies, animated specials, and other works have been created that tell the story of Virginia and her letter. She has become a rather integral part of the Christmas zeitgeist. At least in the United States.
Coming in a distant second to Virginia in this story, in regards to eventual fame, scholarly investigation, dramatic presentation in various media, and inspiration to generations of Christmas lovers? One Francis Pharcellus Church. Who was he? Nobody special. Just the man who actually wrote the editorial itself.
I don’t want to go on and on about that. But I did think it worthy of mention that the author of the words which move so many of us that love Christmas, and the work of whom sparked the most popular editorial of all time seem almost to be an after thought.
“Oh yeah,” folklore personified seems to say. “He took care of that whole writing part of the Virginia story.”
Folks, nothing against Virginia, but in the end Mr. Church was the story. Mr. Church is the story.
Yet his section of the link I provided is basically just his picture. His Wikipedia entry merely mentions he wrote the piece, where he went to school, that he died childless and where his body is buried. It’s barely longer than the piece for which he is (not so) famous.
Now I am not beating up anybody over this. Virginia deserved some attention and admiration. However I do confess it has over the years annoyed me a bit that though it is Mr. Church’s work that instantly captured the hearts of millions, it continues to be Virginia’s story.
So that being said, allow me, on this Christmas Eve of all days, to talk a little bit about what this work of Francis Pharcellus Church says about him, and about writing.
Set aside how famous it is. Really think about the piece. The prose is eloquent but concise. Touching on a multifaceted and deep spiritual truth in a manner that is accessible to an eight year old without boring an adult reader. It both confirms the truth about “Santa Claus”, without blowing the mystique of Santa Claus. It upholds the magical in a child’s Christmas experience without telling one single lie or half truth. On top of it all its magnificent diction makes it perfect for easy recitation or performance.
In other words, it is a brilliant piece of writing that accomplished its mission. And far, far more.
There is much we will never know about the circumstances of Mr. Church composing this editorial. We cannot know what exactly Mr. Church was thinking when he wrote the piece. We probably have no way of knowing if it was assigned to him as opposed to being a request he made to write it. And certainly his muse, like those of all us writers, will remain a mystery. Certainly more of a mystery than what Virginia went on to do with the rest of her life.
Still I think we can make a few assumptions safely. It is safe to say that this was more than a staff writer cutting his pay check. There is a superior quality of soul within the words. I find it hard to accept he didn’t believe each and every one of them as he wrote it.
Safe, also, is the assumption that Church had no idea of the impact he was about to have on an entire nation’s holiday experience over the next hundred-plus years and counting. Anybody who sits down to pen something with that as a goal needs to be locked up someplace.
He did know, as we know, one thing; he was a writer. It was his job to write, and to do so well. To live up to the standard’s expected of him by his employer and by himself. Pursuant to that, he sat down (as so many of us have before and since) with a goal, a resource, his experience, his talent, and his words. And he penned something. Something to which he could not (or would not) attach his name originally. And as a result of his gift for words, he changed not only Virginia’s life, but millions of others. Perhaps even Christmas itself to some degree. And all of that would be true whether or not the “Virginia” letter was really written by an eight year old.
This is why I write. This is why I seek out places and opportunities to make use of this talent I apparently have to assemble words in such a way as to affect, inspire, change, entertain, inform, provoke, and perhaps on occasion save other people. It is why I chose to be a starving freelancer for now. (Unless some perfect staff writing position should show up.) It is why I do my damnedest to write even though I know that nobody is reading. Why, despite a hiatus here and there I muster up within myself time after time that exhausting, that perplexing, that frustrating, that miraculous and inexplicable component within my spirit that accounts for me being a writer.
This stuff isn’t easy, folks. But it can be worth it, when you get it right. Even more worth it when the right people read at the right time what a writer composes. Just as they did for Francis Pharcellus Church. Just as they still do 113 years after he submitted it to the paper.
Was that ubiquitous yet beloved editorial a fluke? Did Church merely get lucky, and strike a cord or two, or a million? Maybe. But I think not. He was, as history tells us a “veteran” journalist, which means he had been writing large amounts of copy for at least quite a few years. That experience may have sharpened him and his words over time in just the right way to make his tapping into the consciousness of a whole culture more likely than it otherwise would have been. But that isn’t being lucky. That’s showing up. We get rewarded for showing up.
Thus far I have shown up to write far more often than I have been rewarded for same. And I get weary of it. Sometimes I even step away for weeks at a time. But the knowledge that showing up can lead to that one moment, article, sentence, speech or novel that changes everything eventually brings me back to the bottom of that hill, ready to push that bolder ever upward. I wonder if Francis Pharcellus Church ever felt that way.
As I mentioned, we know Church died having had no children. But did he? If children be extensions of ourselves and our love, while also taking on a life of their own as time goes on, I say perhaps the man did have at least one child. That child was an unsigned editorial in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. And look at how many children, of all ages, it has touched in the decades since.
All because there was once a writer who showed up.
I break my blog-writing hiatus to announce with pride the launch of my latest book.
Frederick County, Maryland has been home my entire life. Much of the writing for this blog, my books, and anything else with my name on it has come to fruition within Maryland’s largest county. And when i get tired of working at home, I like to move about local places, for a change in perspective, and perhaps to encounter new muses.
This books is a detailed look at 14 such places I have, from time to time, gone to for writing work. Usually, I do my out of home writing at the library, but when I tired of that fine institution as well as home, I seek out any number of nooks, corners, and little thought of locales to get down a few sentences. Some I visited more than others, and there are of course plenty of spots not included in this book. But this is a great primer for those locals who may be looking for different environments for their creation.
It is not mere travelogue, however. In this brief volume, (about 15,000 words) I explore what aspects of good writing and good writing practice can be gleaned from the particular venues. All subjective of course, but so is writing. Perhaps you will find yourself in agreement with what I write.
Here is the link, which will also go into the “My Books” menus at the front of this website.
If you download this free ebook and check out any or all of the places therein, I’d love to hear from you.
We live in a cynical world. By some metrics, it becomes more cynical as time goes on–about people, institutions, even science. If it doesn’t hammer a nail literally into wood, or figuratively into the crushing weight of the Protestant Work Ethic, it’s a waste of resources, time, energy and attention.
Late stage capitalism, folks.
It didn’t take a pandemic to gut the arts. That is just, sadly, helping it to stick. Or on the other side of that coin, it merely highlights the decreasing societal esteem for the arts.
Even the term “arts” itself has become, for some, code for “lazy hippies” who scribble in chalk on the sidewalk, or children who have their “head in the clouds” because they want to dance instead of study algebra to the point of headache.
Do something useful with your life.
That’s the refrain from voices that grow louder, and coarser in this increasingly cynical time.
As a writer and actor, I naturally want to defend the arts as an institution(s). Much of what I try to do, and have always tried to do in life ties into some aspect of the arts.
Yet, defending such huge mechanisms is not in everyone’s purview. We may not have the funds to donate to the opera, or we may not have the skill to volunteer or the stomach for straight-up activism.
That’s fine, because I have good news; worry less about defending nebulous concepts like THE ARTS. You can dedicate you time, effort and opinion to defending the DNA of all the arts, imagination.
You have an imagination. You’ve known sense Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, and probably before that. You create things in your mind. Sometimes they end up on paper, or in clay, or on stage, and sometimes they do not. Sometimes creations are only in your mind. But it takes imagination. When you acknowledge this, and acknowledge that these creations internal and external are worth brainpower, (and heart power), you are defending imagination.
When you opt not to laugh out loud at a child’s “silly” game or rudimentary drawing, you are defending imagination.
When you read fiction, to yourself or to others willing to listen, you are defending imagination.
When, instead of mocking a toy, or cartoon show, or other “goofy” medium designed to enhance imagination in the world, you applaud it, or share it with those who will benefit, you are defending imagination.
When you would rather take a kick in the gut than throw a blanket on someone’s pursuit of healthy fantasy, you are defending imagination.
When you ask colleagues to talk about their flashy clothes or “wild” hair color, instead of labeling same, you are defending imagination.
You don’t have to be an artist of any kind to recognize the importance of defending imagination, because as I said earlier, you have one. Maybe you have forgotten, or perhaps you lived through the tragedy of family and/or friends that strangled, quashed or numbed your imagination because it “served no purpose,” or “it was time to grow up.” If you’re reading this now you have my permission to no longer give a shit about that. Get your imagination back.
And if you happen to be an artist? Yeah, I am pretty sure it’s your duty to stand up for imagination in all of its forms. A photographer should be the first to defend writing. The painter should take a keen interest in making sure less-fortunate people have access to musical instruments. Actors should not be able to stomach a deliberate thwarting of someone’s dreams of being an illustrator. We must be willing to defend all of it, and more, in order to keep alive the seed it all springs from: imagination.
We live is cynical times, and, for the time being, a crumbling American society in the very least. Your son’s poem or your nieces impromptu dance will not fix it. But the message you emblazon into those souls by allowing them the freedom to pursue such things will eventually lead to the type of people, type of society, that will fix things.
Defend the imagination.
So, J.K. Rowling has pissed off a lot of people lately. If you have somehow not heard about her recent unfortunate comments regarding transgender people, (as well as her equally unfortunate attempts to “clarify” them a day later) clink on the above link. Suffice to say, people in and allied with the transgender community are offended by this insensitivity.
Adding an element to the sadness sf how many people in those communities have drawn inspiration from the Harry Potter series. In many cases a transgender person has lived their whole life with the characters of Hermione, Harry, and the adventures they and others had in and around Hogwarts. The particular affinity is due in large part to the overarching thread of tolerance for the outcast and protection of the weak and the willingness to stand up to aggression and evil, even at the cost of one’s own life that runs throughout the seven volumes of the original series.
Truth be told, I have never been so convinced that the Harry Potter books, (which after years I finally finished reading) represent so wholesome and powerful a set of ideals as I have described. But My personal assesement of a bunch of novels is not the issue. The issue is that a generation, nearly two generations now of children and young(ish) adults has vocally, enthusiastically attached themselves to and sought refuge within the so called “Potterverse.” And now, understandably, many are just as vocal about how betrayed they feel about Rowlings less-than-supportive comments in regards to the transgender experience.
I’ve heard more than a few such people decry Rowling, but declare that “Harry Potter” himself, or “Dumbledore”, or any number of characters within the books are actually responsible for writing them. In so doing, they can preserve the magic (literal and figurative) that the books have brought into their lives, without having to support transphobic tweets and commentary from Rowling.
It’s all presented a situation that is almost as fascinating as it is depressing.
As I said, I’m not a Potter superfan. Nor am I a member of the transgender community. (Though I am an ally.) I therefore cannot experience first hand the nature of such a potential betrayal as this. Nor do I have any authority by which to advise how anyone in that situation should proceed. But as an author, I had some thoughts I couldn’t ignore about all of this.
To begin with, I say, more power to you if you can still embrace the work and despise the author. I don’t think I would be able to do so. There are already movies I enjoy but have not watched in years because of revelations about the actors that appear in them. There are chain restaurants I no longer eat at, despite the quality of their food because of statements by their owners on such issues. I do not claim to be an activist, and I realize almost any company probably has a dark shadow lurking in its structure somewhere. Nonetheless, these are steps I have taken, and probably will again at some point.
Novels are such deeply rooted emotional projections of an author, believe me. No matter the voice or POV or genre or context, if an author owes their success to anything other than dumb luck, a large portion of who they are is within the pages. In the setting, the hero, the villain. It doesn’t mean they agree with the villain of course, but when they themselves start to act like a type of villain in real life against your type of person, how can that be ignored?
I understand the theory behind it; it’s a theory with some positive, powerful implications for all writers. It is this: we can create something from the depths of our hearts and minds that people can fall in love with to such a degree that it becomes almost alive independent of us. Once a book is out there, the author’s job is in essence finished; it no longer belongs to only the author. It may, by some view, not belong to them at all anymore.
Multiply that concept by a skillion, and you have the Harry Potter phenomenon. It is a compelling comfort to think that as authors, we could give so much life to something that our own striking of the match leads to a world-changing blaze that doesn’t even require our presence.
And knowing more about our real-life heroes isn’t always such a great idea. Stars we look up to might be rude to us, dismissive, just plain unpleasant to be around if ever we somehow meet them. Which is why I tend, in most cases, not to inquire much into the life of an artist whose work I love. There’s just too much of a chance of disappointment. I could almost recent someone so lousy creating something that meant so much to me.
Sometimes however, such as with Rowling, the stain is so large, the behavior so public, we cannot help but catch wind of what they have done or said. When that happens, no matter how much we wish a fictional character, or a fairy of some kind created the art we love ex nihilio, we cannot escape the fact that a human, with unpleasant views to us, has actually done so. Our love of what they created has in fact contributed to them becoming famous and powerful enough to make offensive statements on Twitter that millions of people dissect.
I can’t lie to you, I couldn’t stand it. I mean we’re not talking about an artist who may bathe rarely, or belch loudly in the next booth at the fancy restaurant we happen into. We are talking about a dismissal of an entire type of life, with roots in some even more unsavory opinions and perspectives.
At that point, does the work truly live beyond its shameful author? Can we actually separate creation from creator? Furthermore, should we even try? (Several torn down statues all over the world would suggest to a large degree that we cannot.)
Again, I don’t know. I reassert that I find no fault with anyone who despises the author, loves the work in the face of all of this. But I’d love to hear more from someone who is in fact doing this, because it all seems like fruit of a poisonous vine now. Comment if you are successfully engaging in this kind of separation.