Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, from me and Frank Church

If there is an American journalistic canon, certainly Francis P. Church’s "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" must reside therein. In response to an eight-year-old girl’s plea to tell the truth about whether Santa Claus truly existed, Church wrote on Sept. 21, 1897, one of the most famous editorials in the history of American journalism. Whether or not he knew it, Church reached back to the origins of civic discourse and, with a mastery of Aristotelian logos, told little Virginia O’Hanlon and all of The New York Sun’s readers that Santa Claus existed “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.”

Church’s response to a little girl’s plea illustrated the core principles of one of the least-studied of English language literary genre. Distinct from any other form of reporting, or even from other forms of mass media opinion, the newspaper editorial exists as a unique form of public discourse. In the chronicling and analysis of events that affect the human condition, the newspaper editorial is the sum of analysis. The editorial alone expresses the collective, considered opinion of those who present the day’s news on the rest of the newspaper’s pages.

Frank Church’s editorial illustrated the storyteller tradition in journalism and in editorial writing. A world in which Santa Claus is a “reality” is a construct of Church’s mind. Church’s reality of Santa Claus is created by what Terry Eagleton, in his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, called the “science of subjectivity.” Eagleton wrote: "The world is what I posit or 'intend': it is to be grasped in relation to me, as a correlate of my consciousness, and that consciousness is not just fallibly empirical but transcendental."

Church’s argument transcended empiricism in that he did not cite one single fact in his editorial; he appealed, instead, to little Virginia’s--and his readers’--belief that there are things in the world we cannot explain. He turned the use of empirical evidence upside-down and suggested that little Virginia challenge non-believers to prove that Santa Claus didn’t exist; the world she intended existed in relation to her.

Church then used the impossibility of proof to persuade his readers to believe that Santa Claus embodied all that is good in humankind. He concluded: "No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood." (This isn't a punctuation faux pas; it's the punctuation used in the original, reprinted below, which was acceptable at that time.)

Church intended that, when readers had finished reading his editorial, they believed in Santa Claus because they believed Frank Church. He knew what was good and right in the world, and he was an authority because he worked for The New York Sun. Scholars of rhetoric will recognize Aristotelian construction in Church’s editorial; his ethos comes from The Sun itself as a source of accurate information, the logos flows from his use of language--that is, he creates a logical argument by challenging disbelievers to prove him wrong, thus turning logic itself upside-down--and the pathos comes from his audience’s common belief in good things.

But enough of scholarly discourse. Here, for your enjoyment on this Christmas holiday, is what I consider to be the greatest newspaper editorial ever published. First, little Virginia's letter to the editor:

Dear Editor—
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon

And Frank Church's immortal answer:

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 you 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 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, 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 lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.