Thursday, December 20, 2018

Yes Virginia

Ah, the Christmas season! It must be time to trot out my “Brush With Greatness” story. But first, a little historical context.

If you were to buttonhole a random Brit and ask, “Do you know who Alice Liddell is?” They would most likely look stealthily around to see if there was a cop, or at least a PCSO, in the immediate area, but once they understood that you weren’t a serial killer or, worse, a Chugger, they might smile nervously and tell you they had no idea what you were talking about. If, however, you asked, “Have you ever heard of Alice in Wonderland?” They would nob and give a resounding yes, then look for a cop.

If you went on to tell your newfound, but unwilling, friend that you had actually met this famous Alice, they might think, “This person is obviously loony! Alice was a character in a book. How could he have met her?” This inner argument would be given credence by the fact that it would likely be taking place in a Care Home, because you’d have to be in your mid-nineties for your story to be true, but we’re getting away from the point.

Alice Liddell, looking all pouty and sexy in a photo taken by
Mr. Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll
My point is, if you told someone you had met the real Alice from Alice in Wonderland, they would (after you convinced them that she wasn’t simply a character in a book) be impressed. Such is her fame that this would happen on either side of the Atlantic. Everyone has heard of Alice. Not so with Virginia.

Virginia O'Hanlon, looking a little more demure than Alice.
Ask a random American if they’ve heard of Virginia O’Hanlon, and you’d get the same nervous looks and surreptitious search for law enforcers. But ask if they have heard the phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and they would immediately know what you are talking about. Then they’d go find a cop.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” is so ingrained in US culture that people probably think, as they might of Alice, that she was simply a literary device. But Virginia, like Alice, was a real little girl, and, like Alice, she didn’t really do anything. All she did was write a letter to The Sun newspaper asking if Santa was real. (All Alice did, by the way, was have herself born into the British upper class and befriend a literary pedophile.)

In 1897, Virginia, who lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side—not exactly on a par with the British upper class, but no slouch, either—asked her father whether Santa Claus really existed. She was eight at the time, and her father, who doubtlessly wanted her to stop annoying him, told her to write to The Sun, reportedly stating, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." And she did.

The letter was passed on to Francis Pharcellus Church, one of the newspaper’s editors. It was he who wrote what would arguably become the most famous editorial in US history. The editorial was well received and grew in popularity over the years. According to Wikipedia, it is the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language. In 1971, a children's book titled Yes, Virginia was published and noticed by Warner Brothers, who eventually made an Emmy award-winning television show based on the editorial.

As you can see, Virginia, her letter, and Mr. Church’s response, are rooted deep in the US national psyche.   

Well, I am here to tell you—Yanks and Brits alike—that I met Virginia O’Hanlon.

She spent her later years in the Barnwell Nursing Home in Valatie, NY. I am not certain what hideous things she did during her life, or any past lives, that caused karma to visit such a fate upon her, but that event allowed her to befriend a Mrs. Drum, who was my first grade teacher. At Christmas time, in 1961, Mrs. Drum invited Virginia to visit my class. She read her letter, and the famous response, and I recall at the time knowing that she was someone really famous, but I was most impressed by how incredibly old she was (whereas now I am wondering why, at the tender age of 71, she was in a nursing home).

Over the years, I have impressed many people by telling them of my encounter with the authentic Virginia (she of “there is a Santa Claus” fame; I did meet a woman over here who was a friend and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, she of “who’s afraid of” fame, but that’s another story), upon my arrival in the UK, however, this story stopped having any value. In Britain, asking “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?’” gets the same response as, “Did you know that cat urine glows under ultraviolet light?”And, in truth, they’d likely be more interested in hearing about the cat urine.

So, there is it, my brush with Christmas Greatness. And here is the letter that started it all, along with the famous response:


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. 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. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. 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.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. 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 that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this 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.

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