Yes, Virginia

The editorial pages of newspapers are often dull, uninspired affairs, but every once in a while genius strikes. So it was in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun, when a veteran newsman named Francis Pharcellus Church was asked to respond to a little girl’s innocent inquiry about whether Santa Claus really existed. He produced a classic that became one of the most reprinted editorials of all time — with a simple and timeless message that continues to resonate down through the years, and seems especially apt today, as we come to the end of a very difficult year:

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, 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.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!

Rudolph The Insensitive Reindeer

The Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was broadcast on TV recently.  It’s the timeless story of a misfit reindeer with the brilliant nose who ultimately saves Christmas during the Storm of the Century — and a misfit elf who wants to be a dentist rather than making toys.  First broadcast in the ’60s, Rudolph and its songs has been enjoyed by multiple generations of American kids.

94f266d0-ba5f-4498-9511-1268549977a0Until this year, I guess.  In the modern politically correct era where people are a lot more sensitive than they’ve ever been before, Rudolph doesn’t fare quite so well.  After all, the other reindeer are mean to poor little Rudolph at the Reindeer Games after Rudolph’s false nose falls off, and neither Coach Comet nor Rudolph’s own parents really stick up for Rudolph’s right to be different.  Poor Hermey the elf is facing a long life on the toy assembly line where he will be forced to hear the irritating chorus from We Are Santa’s Elves (Filling Santa’s Shelves) over and over again.  Hermey’s got no chance to follow his dental dreams.  Yukon Cornelius is not only a blustering blowhard, he’s a prospector who wants to tear up the landscape in search of gold when he’s not stalking and tormenting the Abominable Snowman.  And the poor Bumble, at heart a gentle soul beneath his terrifying exterior, ends up tortured by having all of his teeth pulled by people who won’t let him be himself.

And Santa, too, doesn’t exactly make a great impression, does he?  He’s certainly not very sensitive to Rudolph’s needs, or all that interested in celebrating Rudolph’s diversity.  At first he’s a bullying, self-absorbed boss, cracking the whip on the slavishly working elves and the reindeer to make sure that he can pull off another Christmas.  Even after Mrs. Claus succeeds in fattening him up and making him look a bit more jolly, he sees the light from Rudolph’s nose and embraces Rudolph’s shiny difference only when the Storm of the Century leaves him no choice.

Of course, all of these plot lines have been part of Rudolph since the beginning — we just haven’t seen the story in this light until now.  And yet, somehow, the kids who grew up watching Rudolph every holiday season ended up being reasonably well-adjusted people who aren’t out there yanking out the teeth of every passing Bumble just for the fun of it.  In fact, you might say that the story of Rudolph and Hermey and the challenges they had to overcome made those viewers just a little bit more receptive to the idea that people can be different — and that’s okay.  Would that message have the same impact if Rudolph and Hermey had been treated like champions from the outset?

The Santa Claus Killer

North of border, a grisly story of mass murder is unfolding.  In Toronto, police and shaken residents are dealing with an apparent serial killer who roamed in their midst, an apparently pleasant gardener, landscaper, and flower arranger by day and a violent, allegedly homicidal sadist by night.

15267796_10154189330693528_3900810531768579684_n-e1516319633635The accused, Bruce McArthur, has been charged with the murders of five men.  Police are investigating properties where McArthur evidently buried the dismembered remains of his victims in the planters, lawns, and gardens he tended for unsuspecting clients — a story line that is similar to the plot of Stephen King’s short story The Lawnmower Man.  Police believe that McArthur roamed the gay district in Toronto, looking for submissive men who would help him act out violent sexual fantasies — fantasies that apparently sometimes ended in grisly death.  There is growing concern, too, that the investigation will uncover many more victims.

And by the way, McArthur also once served as the Santa Claus at a Toronto-area mall.  I wonder if the parents who learn of that creepy fact will ever put their kids on the lap of a mall Santa again?

As seems to so often be the case, his neighbors and his clients describe McArthur as a jovial, helpful person who liked to bake and design flower arrangements.  They didn’t suspect his apparent double life or dark side.  It really makes you wonder how many murderous people are out there in the world, acting out their disturbed impulses — and also makes you feel lucky that you haven’t encountered them at the wrong time on a darkened street.


On Santa’s Lap, Anywhere

On Saturday I went to the nearest Ace Hardware store, on Parsons Avenue, to buy some light bulbs for the kitchen.  As I was checking out with the cashier, I looked over and noticed to my surprise that the store had a Santa sitting over to one side, in a pretty good approximation of the North Pole, waiting patiently for some squalling child to sit on his lap and tell him what was on their Christmas list.  Santa politely said hello, and I wished him Merry Christmas.

00020405I’m not sure that people normally associate an Ace Hardware store with the possibility of a visit with Santa, but I think this is significant news to report to the families in the Columbus area who have young children.  Folks, it looks like you can go to the Ace on a Saturday and get right in to see the Big Fella!  This is important information, because taking the kids to see Santa is an annual tradition in many families, and frequently is planned with the precision of a military operation.  Where to go and when — so as to avoid waiting in line for hours with some squirming, fidgety kid who is eventually going to have to go to the bathroom — is a key part of the planning exercise.

Maybe I’m wrong in my recollection, but I don’t think the location of the Santa visit would have bothered me one bit.  Whether in a gaily decorated old-line department store or in the area next to the hardware store aisle where they sell hatchets, I just wanted to make sure that Santa knew what I wanted most — and it wasn’t world peace.  So long as you accepted that the guy you were talking to was one of Santa’s agents, ready to convey your intense desire for a Rock ’em, Sock ’em robot game to the Jolly Old Elf himself, the location of the visit with the ersatz Santa was irrelevant.

As parents, of course, the key thing about the visit is to get the adorable picture of your kid sitting on Santa’s lap.  And when you think about it, you don’t really care where the picture is taken, either.  Consider the above dim, horribly underexposed photo of Richard and his cousin Joe, dressed in their holiday finest, sitting slack-jawed on the lap of some unknown guy in an area with a Christmas tree, white cotton snow, and, improbably, penguins.  (Improbably, because everyone knows that Santa’s workshop is at the North Pole, whereas penguins are native to the South Pole.)  Do we now have any recollection of where this picture was taken?  Nope!

For all I can remember, it might have been the Ace Hardware store.

The Christmas Deceptions Begin

Kish and I stopped in a FedEx office this morning.  We apparently just missed Santa, or one of his elves, who had been there Xeroxing “elf on a shelf” messages.  This message acknowledges the assignment of the elf Maxy to one family, where he will keep an eye on behavior and report back to Santa himself.

Merry Christmas, indeed!  As any former kid knows, the post-Thanksgiving period in when you really need to toe the line, else you end up on the dreaded “naughty” list.  And Maxy will be there, watching.

Do We Really Have To Politicize Santa?

I don’t remember believing in Santa Claus — but according to my mother, I did.  I do remember my younger sisters believing, and playing along with the Santa game.  It was fun, and it made Christmas a more special, magical time.  When Richard and Russell were little, and they believed in St. Nick, it was a time of great, innocent joy.

So why does Greenpeace need to produce a video of Santa warning children that Christmas might not come because global warming is endangering the North Pole.  I know this is just political claptrap, prepared to attract attention and, presumably, donations, but it really crosses a line.  Santa shouldn’t be political. Regardless of your position on whether human activities have produced global warming, can’t we leave little children and their beautiful fantasies about life and magical people like Santa Clause alone?

The Santa Claus Cutting Board

Yesterday we received an unexpected gift — a large, acrylic Santa Claus cutting board.  It features a fine depiction of the right jolly old elf, with fur-trimmed robe and hat, red nose, flowing white beard, and a full pack of toys for good little girls and boys.

IMG_5533Any gift is thoughtful and appreciated, of course, and we certainly can use a sturdy new cutting board.  Still, there is something about a Santa Claus cutting board that is a bit . . . unsettling.  Who would want to bring a sharp knife down on St. Nick’s plump face as they slice a lemon or scar him permanently with a well-placed stroke across the belly?  Why should Kris Kringle have to endure the hacking and stabbing and chopping?

Of course, this kind of cutting board may have a strong subconscious appeal to people who’ve had enough of Christmas sales and Christmas traffic and their fiftieth exposure to Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.  Frankly, they’ve had it up to here with Christmas already and just need to relieve a little bit of holiday tension by bringing a meat cleaver down on St. Nick’s neck.  Or perhaps it is intended for people who didn’t get the Robbie the Robot toy they asked for three years in a row, were made to feel like they were a bad boy, and secretly have always wanted to take it out on Santa by smashing a tomato in his fat, judgmental, coal-giving face.  “Hey, Santa — what gives you the right to decide who’s naughty or nice?”  Whack!

We’ll know if there’s something to this theory if we start to see Santa Claus-themed toilet plungers and Father Christmas targets at the local gun range.

Plunge Pool, Christmas Eve

IMG_2410We’re out on the front porch, drinking rum drinks made with English Harbour Aged 5 Years Rhum (distilled right here on Antigua), listening to ’80s music (Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love was one of the greatest videos every, wasn’t it?), looking at the plunge pool and the lights twinkling across the bay, and waiting for Santa Claus to make his visit.  Only a few hours to go!

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Santa Scene

Kish and I went to see a movie at Easton this afternoon, and when we left this evening I realized the mall was packed.  What was going on?

I looked around and, to my surprise, saw Jolly Old St. Nick.  He was there on stage, a child on his knee, flashbulbs popping, as a line of excited toddlers and their pushy parents were waiting to get the holiday tradition checked off the list before Thanksgiving even arrives.  The whole interior was decked out in bright lights and holiday spangles and signs.

When I left, there was a huge traffic jam in the Easton garage as inconsiderate shoppers just decided to stop their cars in the exit lanes until somebody left and other inconsiderate shoppers cut people off and drove the wrong way down up ramps trying to sneak around the jam and get the hell out of the garage.  I was glad to see that everyone was full of holiday cheer and good will toward men.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!

A Webner Family Christmas

Christmas at 2320 North Short Hills Drive in Bath, Ohio in the 1960s was a magical time.  It was a focus of the year for the five growing children in the Webner clan and lives on, rich and funny and idyllic, in my memory.

The Webner Family Christmas was steeped in traditions that heightened the excitement of the holiday.  On Christmas Eve we would leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk near the fireplace, so Santa could have a snack after dropping off what we hoped would be a heavy load of presents.  Then we would rush upstairs to get into our PJs and try to go to bed extra early, because Mom had explained that the earlier you went to bed the sooner it would be Christmas morning.  (Smart move, Mom!)  In those days all five kids, separated youngest to oldest by nearly seven years, would sleep in the bedroom UJ and I shared, in a room crammed with pillows and blankets.  It seems impossible that five little kids, charged with excitement and crazed by their lust for toys, could ever fall asleep, but one by one we did.  Our last thoughts before falling into slumber no doubt were about whether we had been sufficiently good that year, or whether the Malt-O-Meal bird that Mom convinced us was reporting to Santa on our every activity had told about enough transgressions that we would only get the dreaded lump of coal the next day.

The next morning we would get up early — and by early, I mean 5:30 a.m. or so — wake up Mom and Dad, and then sit at the top of stairs, waiting.  Another tradition was that no one could go downstairs until Mom and Dad were ready.  The wait seemed to take forever.  (We later learned, of course, that Dad had been up until 3 a.m. putting together some of the toys we were about to get.)  In the meantime, we would give each other reports on Dad’s progress through his wake-up routine, like radio play-by-play announcers describing a ball game.  Yes, it was confirmed — Dad is out of bed!  Now we can hear the shower, that means he is making progress!  I’ve heard it from the source — Mom says Dad is shaving!  Shaving was always the last, and longest, step.  With each scrape of the razor, the excitement at the top of the stairs would build, reaching feverish proportions.  All five of us knew that just a few steps downstairs, but tantalizingly out of sight from our perch atop the stairs, was the Christmas Tree and Santa’s judgment on whether we had been good or bad.

Finally, seemingly hours after he had been abruptly awakened by five shouting, hyperexcited children, Dad appeared and we were permitted to race downstairs.  We first noticed the indisputable visual evidence of Santa’s midnight appearance.  We saw that the milk had been drunk and the cookies eaten, and the telltale track of sooty boots traced the path from the fireplace to the TV tray where the glass of milk and plate of cookies had been left.  We also could see the tree, glittering with tinsel and sparkling with ornaments, and appreciate the rich haul of brightly wrapped packages jammed underneath.  Our eyes immediately were drawn to the largest present, and all of the children shared the same greedy thought:  “Please, let it be for me!”  But we would not find out the lucky recipient for a while, for another time-honored tradition was that we could only open what was in our stockings.  You would get a candy cane or two, a chocolate Santa and perhaps a marshmallow snowman, and maybe a Tonka truck and a comic book.  Given our toy-hungry condition, it was like tormenting a starving man with a  Saltine cracker.  Afterward, we headed to the kitchen table, where we ate our breakfast of hot cereal — undoubtedly the influence of the Malt-O-Meal bird again.  Never was hot cereal consumed so quickly, as we thought furiously about what we had asked for in the Christmas lists prepared weeks before.  As we shoveled down the hot cereal Dad chugged a few cups of coffee, trying to steel himself for noisy orgy of present-opening that loomed dead ahead.

And then, the Supreme Hour arrived.  We would troop over to the tree and sit down close by, and Dad would hand out the presents one at a time.  Wrapping paper would be ripped to shreds, the presents would be speedily examined, and then they would be put aside so that the next one could be received as quickly as possible.  And all the while side-long glances would be cast at brothers and sisters and the presents left under the tree, and lightning-fast mental calculations of the remaining likely gifts would be performed:  “Jim got a stocking cap from Gramma and Grampa Neal — that means that one of my remaining presents is a stocking cap, too.  Arrgh!  A stocking cap!  Hey, everyone else has gotten a big gift, but I haven’t so far — so one of my remaining presents probably is going to be something big.  Whoo hoo!” Dad usually saved the biggest gift of all for the end.  By then we all had given eagle-eye looks at the present to look at whose name was on the tag, and the lucky recipient waited, adrenalin pumping, to see what was in such a big box.

Eventually the carnage of gift-giving was over and we sank back, hip deep in the blizzard of shredded wrapping paper, ribbons, and tags, our greed sated and ready for a more careful examination of the presents we had received.  And deep down, many of us felt:  “Hey, Santa must have concluded I was pretty good.  Maybe the standards aren’t very high, after all!  Or maybe the Malt-O-Meal bird didn’t see the time I broke one of Gramma’s figurines and blamed it on Margaret.  Or, maybe Santa just fell for the last two weeks of good behavior in the run-up to Christmas.  Heh heh!”  Flush with that important realization, we would gorge ourselves on the foil-wrapped chocolates from our stockings, play briefly with our toys, and then bundle up and head out into the quiet, frosty, snow-covered neighborhood, to find out what Santa brought to the dozens of other kids who lived there.