(** This article originally appeared on The PediaBlog December 24, 2015. **)
Mind On The Run:
“Yes, Miles, There is a Santa Claus…
Yes, Miles, There Was a Virginia”
(Musical Accompaniment: “In My Life” by The Beatles)
In 1897 a confused 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon posed this question to her father Phillip, a doctor and coroner’s assistant in Manhattan, NY: Is there a Santa Claus — does he really exist? Doctor O’Hanlon judiciously “punted” the question to a stranger, suggesting that she write to “The Sun” (a prominent New York City newspaper at the time) and assuring her that the truth would surely be revealed.
The iconic editorial of reassurance was provided by one Francis Pharcellus Church, a former correspondent during the Civil War who had witnessed great suffering and lack of hope and faith in society. “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” remains, more than a century later, the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language. The Pediablog will make no exception!
However, my dear Miles, I must confess that for years I was skeptical. The arguments offered by Editor Church are not evidence-based and we Americans have recently suffered a “hit” to our collective morale and to the soul of our democracy.
Wrote Church: “They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”
My own little mind can only offer a tale — a story of devotion and courage that I witnessed one Christmas Eve long ago. The story is sad but it must be told…
In the 1960s in New Jersey almost every household had a train set around the Christmas tree — some trains were electric and some were imitation. Two bespectacled brothers of about 10-12 years of age were very fearful of what Christmas held in store for them. Their mother was slowly dying and there was a lien on the house to pay for the medical bills. They prayed that they would be able to keep their parent’s favorite painting, “Freedom from Fear,” which hung on the living room wall.
The mother of the boys was named Virginia. She remained a proud, mind-strong woman in spite of her deteriorating health and refused to see a super-specialist, a Doctor Cooper, in New York City, who might offer some hope of recovery. Her husband, a man of humble origins and limited means, promised Virginia a mink coat for Christmas if she would cooperate. The brothers were skeptical that their father could afford such a present. They were fearful that an argument would erupt on Christmas Eve and that their father would leave them.
The situation that evening worsened still when the nervous older brother accidentally stepped on the track of the electric train they had received as their present and rendered the system dysfunctional. The preoccupied, angry father put on his coat, bolted out of the house with the broken track, and took a bus to town in the snow (no car in the family). The family believed that they would not see hide or hair of him that evening. The older brother who had broken the track could do nothing but cry behind his spectacles.
However, two hours later the father returned from town covered with snow, holding a new replacement track. “I got to Sears and Roebuck just before they closed!” he heartily exclaimed. All were relieved, but the tension was far from over.
Soon after settling down in bed, the brothers became aware of stirring in the living room. They sheepishly peered out from the adjacent hallway. Virginia’s husband was placing a brand new mink coat around her shoulders; as he kneeled at her feet in supplication, she agreed that she would keep an appointment with Doctor Cooper, repeatedly shouting out his name as constituents do at a political rally. The brothers came out of hiding and the little family was very happy. It was one of the last times the boys would ever see Virginia happy.
But Doctor Cooper could not save Virginia and she died several years later in a hospice with her husband at her side. Yes, he too died several months later of a ruptured heart — literally and figuratively. The mink coat was worn by young women of the extended family at special events until its whereabouts became unknown. The electric train probably lies in its fraying box in the far reaches of a dusty attic; the broken track is little more than a fleeting memory in the mind of the little boy who had stepped on it. But, “Freedom from Fear” hangs on the living room wall, as it has for over 50 years.
Yes, Miles, there is indeed a Santa Claus, and as you may have guessed even at your young age, Virginia was your great-grandmother. The husband of exceptional devotion, sacrifice, and love was your great-grandfather. Santa Claus was indeed present that Christmas Eve, intervening in the lives of four desperate people, and bringing joy and gladness and peace (albeit fleeting) to a family who believed in everything that he stands for. I know that I am right because I witnessed it all through my own spectacles.
Church finishes: “Ah, Virginia, in all the world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever.
A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now,
He will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
This winter season may every one of us worldwide enjoy the freedom from fear he abides. Happy Holidays to all — both the living and the dead.