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.
-Originally blogged December of 2010.
A few days ago, I published the final post in my blog, Always Off Book. I had only posted on the blog three times this year, but it has been officially active for 13 years.
That’s a long time for me to do anything, not to mention a long time to keep anything alive on the internet that isn’t somehow subsidized or sponsored by a third party.
It was bittersweet, I won’t deny it. Sure, with one single exception in all of that time my posts about acting and community theatre made somewhere around zero impact on the world. Regular readership with low to non-existent. Engagement there (much like here…) was rare. I posted less detailed thoughts as the years went on.
Still, whenever I found myself in a production, I would keep those I called my “loyal blog readers” in the loop with my experiences and observations. Some years I was in more shows than others, and hence built-in content would ebb and flow, but there hasn’t been a year since the blog’s inception wherein I posted nothing.
It will be odd to be in my next show and not think about what to post there after any given night.
The very same night I signed off on that blog, I went to Amazon to make a purchase. (About which I had done my research.) It is supposed to arrive tomorrow.
What did I purchase? The first basic equipment needed to podcast. The old closing a door, opening a window dance. Or in this case, potentially closing a window and opening a door.
I will continue the thoughts and conversation about community theatre by way of this podcast. It will involve discussions with other local community theatre participants, sometimes one on one and at other times as a panel. They don’t know it yet, but I’ll be asking a lot of people to take part in it around here.
I’ve already got a good name for this podcast picked out, though you can probably guess what it is.
The title will also belong, in all likelihood, to my first non-fiction book I will publish late next year, wherein I share advice and thoughts about the world of stage acting for (not) a living.
Both projects are new territory for me. By no means will they replace my status as a novelist. In fact, I hope that both will enhance my both my novelist and actor tendencies. Along the way, of course I hope I will engage with people, and make a positive impact on their lives and minds. This time around, I hope to accomplish what the labor of love that Always Off Book was could not.
And if I do not? I will be disappointed. I will be discouraged and I will wonder what it is all for. Again. But I haven’t failed yet. I’ve only just now begun to embrace these new projects and approaches. The future of them are still rich with potential.
Yet like all of my previous (and there are many) failed creative attempts to make a difference to people, I hope that a podcast and a non-fiction book, if less than successful, will in the very least add on to my list of things worth attempting.
I’ve been asked to participate in a blog hop for DC area writers and authors. They want us to mention how the Washington, D.C are inspires our writing.
None of my novels have taken place in the District itself, thus far. Yet to be this close to the nation’s capital does affect the process of my writing in numerous ways.
Perhaps the most specific way, (though certainly not limited to this area) is the Constitutional right to compose writing on any topic and theme that I wish. I am literally about an hour away from the document itself, you know. I’ve seen it. (Briefly. They like to keep the line moving quickly at the Archives.) And of course laws for everyone are passed there…just down the proverbial highway from me.
To write well is to not put constraints on one’s vision. It is easy to forget when one is a writer in safe place to create art that there are places on the earth wherein writers can and have been put in jail for what they have written. It’s not limited to news, either. Plenty of novelists and poets have ended up behind bars in countries that viewed their work as subversive to the regime.
These rights apply of course to the entire country, not just my area. Still, I never quite get over the fact that the literal guarantee, signed by the Founders is for me, as compared to most others, quite local indeed.
Thanks for reading! To return to the #ReadLocalDC Blog Hop on Ellen Smith’s website, click here: http://bit.ly/readlocaldc
So, way back when I was a brand new self-publisher, my labor of love and first (made public) novel, Flowers of Dionysus was made available for purchase in most ebook stores. As I was new to the process, I didn’t take the novel to paperback, beyond an experimental copy I creating for myself.
Several books and two novels later, both of which are available in paperback, I am happy to announce that I will be correcting this void in my list of works. I Have begun the process of bringing back my debut novel, this time in paperback form for the general public.
The e-version, at least on Kindle, will likely remain unaffected by this choice, for those who never got around to buying a copy of same. But as for the paperback, I’ll be shopping around for new cover art, adding some front/back matter, and just in general providing an affordable, enjoyable paperback reading experience available to readers of my other novels.
It takes a while sometimes, for a wheel to spin full circle. Now that it almost has, I hope those of you who prefer paper copies of my work will consider going back to the beginning, as it were, and purchasing a copy of Flowers of Dionysus for yourself, when the time comes.
I have no launch day yet, but I want it to be no later than the fall. (Now that it looks like my current work in progress will require a lot more work for a lot more progress than initially expected.)
I’m looking forward to making what is old new again.
I have been a part-time journalist in the past, and I still write human interest and arts-related content for a local magazine.
Yet I have never done much of what one might call “hard journalism.” That is to say factual, researched, or service to the public good and record. I’m capable, but I think in most cases, that sort of writing is best left to those who love doing it.
We need that kind of writing now more than ever.
What of my writing, though? These posts, my observational essays? My fiction?
With the darkening cloud of authoritarianism from Trump, and the bigotry, hatred, and destruction of democratic norms that comes along with that, I’ve been forced to wonder at times if I’m making a true contribution to the light.
The common answer to such inquiries goes something like this:
“Fiction, and other forms of thought provoking, subjective writing provides many people with solace, escape, hope, and empathy. Composing stories that encourage people when little else is encouraging is a valuable contribution to society. That’s true of all of the arts.”
Yes. Okay. I have no argument against that in concept. I certainly would not want stories and art to go away. (Though there are those who try like hell to rid us of them.)
I face several difficulties, however, when I attempt to assimilate this line of thinking into my own life.
-I’m uncertain if there is a point beyond which this ceases to apply to this degree.
-I fear that delving into the production of fiction insulates at times, even if it is unintentional. We need engagement, not more barriers to reality.
-Is writing a good mystery, or an exciting suspense yarn, or immersive fantasy on the same level of justification these days as thick-themed, rebellious, deep-prose literature? The latter has served a social purpose for ages. The former examples?
-Most personally, I myself reach, and hence effect virtually nobody. That is to say even if one were to conclude that writing fiction, all fiction is a service to society in these days of creeping fascism and ultra-nationalism, one would have to assume that said fiction is being read widely in said society, wouldn’t one? My fiction is not widely read thus far. In fact, depending on your metric, my fiction is infrequently read.
It’s true. I’m trying not to sound like this is all about me. Yet for the time being, the truth cannot be denied; whether because of marketing, or content, or dumb luck, I’ve not found a consistent audience for my work beyond a handful of people who know me.
It’s one thing to spend the time, energy, thought and life force on a novel that at least a small audience will most likely enjoy. One can say to oneself as a writer, “I’m at least reaching those people. I made a difference in their day, distracting them from their fears, reminding them of better things. Yet for myself at this time, can I justify all of the time and effort I require to produce a novel that doesn’t get read beyond a few people, when that same time and effort should be spent instead battling and exposing the forces in the United States that are anathema to human rights, dignity and freedom? Shouldn’t be all hands on deck?
That brings me to a concern from the other side of this ever spinning coin; expressing views on political issues is often frowned upon for new, or even established writers. You don’t want to alienate potential readers after all.
But again, I don’t have a following of readers right now, despite best efforts. Who exactly would I be alienating? Furthermore, How out of touch would I appear if I failed to use what little platform I have to speak out against this country’s emerging parallels with late 1920’s Germany? Stepping away from it all and letting “others” sort it out is one of the main reasons we ended up with early 1940’s Germany in the first place.
If you follow my blog, you know that for the last 18 months or so, I’ve felt a bit of a drag on my writing energies anyway. Add to that immigrant children being abused, the hard journalists I mentioned being labeled as “enemies of the people,” and an ever cozier relationship with the Putin tyranny on the part of our government, and how is one ever to get through a particularly rough rewrite of a fantasy featuring crystals and the afterlife? “Keep Calm and Carry On” was a noble sentiment, but it was born out of a nation’s preparation for being literally blown up.
I’ll carry on writing for now, but not out of nobility. It’s because I don’t know exactly what else I’m supposed to do when I’m not keeping track of the American decline. Still the question of how justified I am in doing so is more up in the air than I would like it to be.