By Lindsay Eckert
Tribune lifestyle editor
I’ve always been fascinated with the editorial reply of “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” As a little one awestruck by St. Nick, the reply gave me butterflies of excitement as my imagination illustrated the toys under the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. As a growing child dabbling in doubt, it was poetic reassurance. As an adult, I see it as words written by someone who truly lived all the parts of life: The beautiful parts and the painful parts. The combined parts of life that developed a soul’s ability to create a connection with a child so deep it changed the course of her life, and in turn, changed ours. Even if just for a moment as the sounds and smells of Christmas morning harmonize with the words Francis Pharcellus Church wrote more than a century ago.
It takes a special soul capable of understanding the importance of talking with a child and not talking to a child. Church didn’t just understand that importance, he valued it. Church was able to craft an answer in 1897 that rose above the clichés and the confines of child-like vocabulary to answer with his heart. He ultimately told a tale of truth to Virginia O’Hanlon so profound we find ourselves gripping our newspapers every Christmas morning to not just read the words he wrote, but feel them.
Virginia — the daughter to Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — lived a life far before the convenience of Google and long before you could ask Siri if Santa Claus was real, and aren’t we all glad she did.
Church’s answer filled Virginia’s heart and birthed the inspiration to chase and achieve a dream most women hadn’t ever seen, even through their sleeping eyes. Virginia said Church’s words were the sole inspiration for her decision to become a school teacher for New York City in 1912. Virginia earned a bachelor’s, a master’s and a doctorate before becoming a principal in 1935. It was a career and educational resume unlikely for a woman at that time. However, because of Church, Virginia believed she could be what no one else had seen:
“VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They do not believe except what 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,” Church said in history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial.
Church was not just telling of the spirit that lives in all of us — if we allow it — but his writing foreshadowed the legacy Virginia would continue from his beautifully-crafted words: Don’t let your mind stop at what it sees.
Ironically, Church didn’t see pictures of falling snow drizzling city streets or the image of innocence in children caroling. Church, a former war correspondent during the American Civil War, regularly saw and wrote about a reality the spirit of Santa couldn’t touch: He saw images of suffering, he witnessed tales without any triumph and he was far removed from the type of innocence only found in the Virginias of the world. But, despite the harsh images of a cruel reality in his mind, he crafted a whimsical world of reality that was truthful to its core and sewn together with threads of hope for the Virginias.
Last Friday we witnessed, with tear-filled eyes and throbbing hearts, a picture no parent should be forced to see. We cried for the 20 Virginias this planet lost. We felt weak at the realization they were taken before they too had the chance to slip Church’s words in their back pockets before setting afoot on the travels of their lives.
These words are for the Virginias.