Francis Pharcellus Church is a name that doesn’t ring many bells these days. It didn’t even make the Macy’s windows rendition of “Yes, Virginia,” this year’s holiday display. Everyone remembers Virginia O’Hanlon, the 8-year-old who wrote the New York Sun in September of 1897 to verify the existence of Santa Claus.
“Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so,'” she wrote.
The Sun’s reply, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” is equally famous. Macy’s diorama quotes from the elegantly written editorial though it refers only to an unnamed “editor.”
But Frank Church is the true center of this story. Loathe to see a fellow newspaperman get short shrift, I did some research (www.bookrags.com and www.newseum.org). Here, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story:
From 1866 to 1878, Frank Church and his older brother, William (who, among other things, started the National Rifle Association) edited the Galaxy, a literary magazine that served as New York’s answer to Boston’s more famous (and enduring) Atlantic Monthly.
When the Galaxy folded, Church hooked up with the New York Sun and became their main editorial writer for the next two decades plus. Only one of the thousands of editorials he penned is remembered today — the one printed on Sept. 21, 1897, which began, “Virginia, your little friends are wrong.”
But when his editor, Edward Mitchell, first suggested he write a reply to the little girl’s letter, Church resisted. Then he acquiesced.
“He took the letter,” Mitchell later recalled, “and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”
What arose in him, I wonder, that made him change his mind? Church was a veteran newspaperman (he died nine years later at the age of 67). He had been a Civil War correspondent. The country in 1897 had just emerged from a devastating six-year economic depression that rivaled the Great Depression a mere 30 years later.
He had seen his share of dark times.
Church could have tossed off some tired collection of comforting and unconvincing clichés. But he didn’t. Why he didn’t is the marvel and the mystery. Instead of condescending claptrap, he embraced the challenge. Whatever the reason, he chose instead to write a testament to hope.
“Your little friends are wrong,” he wrote. “They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. … They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. … In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
“[Santa Claus] exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. … Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are, unseen and unseeable, in the world. You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men who ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view the supernal beauty and glory beyond. … In all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
“Thank God he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Mitchell described Frank Church as “quick of perception of the interesting in every phase of human activity except politics (for which he cared little, bless his soul!). There was in his features, something of that gentlemanly pugnacity … a latent aggressiveness that marred neither the delicacy of his fancy nor the warmth of his sympathies.”
In other words, a man worth remembering when this story is told.
After all, the measure of a holiday like Christmas — or any of the other celebrations of light at this dark time of year — is not how long children can sustain belief. Children will always believe in Santa Claus. Eventually, they grow up and become adults who believe — or not — to varying degrees.
The real measure of Christmas, it seems to me, is how long adults can sustain hope in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Keeping hope alive, especially during dark times like ours, is nothing less than a revolutionary act. Hope insists on the possibility of a better world.
A spirit remains alive in the world, which the forces of darkness and despair can never contain or conquer. Some call that spirit “God.” I prefer “Love,” but call it whatever you like.
Francis Pharcellus Church called it “Santa Claus.”