Yes, Virginia, There Was a Writer

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 effected 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 that 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 effect, 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.

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2 Comments

  1. Ty, this post is wonderful. What a brilliant piece.

    Whenever the phrase “Yes, Virginia…” starts rolling through my head, I don't actually think of Virginia at all, and never had more than a passing curiosity about her. Instead I would think of the RESPONSE to Virginia, wrapped up with the cognizance that there's a writer behind the response. But I never bothered to look him up until now. It is sad, now that I think of it, that he himself is obscure, though his words live on. I feel it's more sad for us than for him, now.

    I love how this flows into why you write. “That miraculous and inexplicable component within my spirit that accounts for me being a writer” resonates with me, because that's why I write, that's what keeps me going, and that's why it's worth it no matter what.

    I don't care if it's a scrawled phrase on a torn-off napkin or a one-shot story or a full-blown chaptered fic. It's all, all so beautiful, that feeling when you let yourself create, becoming a conduit, watching the words come out, being more “you” without your ego in the way.

    And yes, it IS hard. There is no free lunch. But you write because you have to or you wouldn't be you at all. That's how I see it.

    All that above was a general “you.” This is not: I'm glad you're writing more even if you don't get “rewarded” the way you probably should, because I like seeing what you come up with. You always make me examine my own thoughts and think of things in different ways.

    Do get, or put on your wishlist, “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Ueland (here's a link: http://www.amazon.com/If-You-Want-Write-Independence/dp/1555972608) It's helped me realize the important things about writing. Sometimes you need someone to look you in the eye and tell you what matters, and for me, this book does it.

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