2019 Reprise, best editorial: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” It must be so, it was in the New York Sun

December 23, 2019

“Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.'”

Do we, you and I in 2019, stand as witnesses to the end of newspapers in America?  In recent years we’ve seen body blows to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the San Diego Union, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and far too many others. Who anymore remembers the Washington Star, or the wonderfully-named San Antonio Light, or the Dallas Times-Herald? Some experiments might work. The Salt Lake Tribune turned non-profit.

Those are just the dailies. Smaller papers, especially weeklies, are all but wholly disappeared.

It’s painful to compare where Americans got their news, and what they thought about it, during the Watergate crises leading to the almost-impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon, and today’s multiple crises leading to the impeachment of Donald Trump, and how it is yet to be resolved.

It’s been a grand history. Newspapering gave us great leaders like Benjamin Franklin. Newspapering gave us wars, like the Spanish-American War. Newspapering gave us Charlie Brown, Ann Landers, the Yellow Kid, Jim Murray, Red Smith, Thomas Nast (and Santa Claus), the Federalist Papers, Watergate, Herblock, news of Vietnam and Pearl Harbor, Neil Armstrong on the Moon, the Pentagon Papers, and coupons to save money on laundry soap.

It’s been a curious history, too. An 1897 editorial vouching for Santa Claus rates as the most popular editorial of all time, according to the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  That’s 122 years ago, and that’s quite some staying power.

Francis Pharcellus Church, probably about 1860

The man who saved Christmas, at least for Virginia O’Hanlon, Francis Pharcellus Church, probably about 1860 – Wikipedia image

In autumn, 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon of 115 West 95th Street in New York, wrote to the New York Sun with this simple question:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

In the age of Yellow Journalism, the fiercely competitive Sun‘s editors turned the letter to Francis Pharcellus. He responded to little Virginia on September 21, 1897:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Church’s brother, William Conant Church, owned and published the newspaper. Both had followed their father into the news business. They co-founded The Army-Navy Journal in 1863, and went on to a series of journalistic collaborations. Francis was 58 years old when he answered Virginia’s letter. (He died at age 67, in 1906.)

The New York Sun held down the conservative corner in New York journalism at the time, versus the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune. But it also had an interesting history, to a blogger intrigued by hoaxes. In 1835 the paper published a series of six newspaper stories falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, a well-known astronomer, claiming to describe a civilization on the Moon — the Great Moon Hoax. The discovery was credited to a new, very powerful telescope.

In 1844 the paper published a hoax written by Edgar Allen Poe, the Balloon Hoax. Under a pseudonym, Poe wrote that a gas balloon had crossed the Atlantic in three days.

The Sun also featured outstanding reporting. A 1947 and 1948 series about crime on the docks of New York City won a Pulitzer Prize for writer Malcolm Johnson. That series inspired Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.

Despite the occasional hoax, people trusted newspapers to get the basic facts right, most of the time.

The New York Sun ceased publication in 1950.

For all of its history, the Sun and the Churches are most remembered for that defense of belief in Santa Claus.

Virginia O'Hanlon, about the age of 8

Virginia O’Hanlon, about the age of 8, when she wrote to The New York Sun’s editors to inquire about the veracity of the Santa Claus story.

Virginia O’Hanlon grew up, graduated from Hunter College, got a masters at Columbia, and earned a Ph.D. from Fordham Univeresity. She taught in the New York City Public School system, from which she retired in 1959. She died in 1971.

Birth of tradition

Columbia University was Church’s alma mater, as well as O’Hanlon’s. Her letter and his response get a reading each year at the Yule Log Ceremony at Columbia College, along with the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Animated, live-acting, and other television productions have been mounted in 1974, 1991, and 2009.

Is there a Santa Claus? Did Church write a credible defense? The text of the letter and answer, below the fold.

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Rare, new and alternative Christmas songs, 2019: Joni Mitchell's "River"

December 23, 2019

Joni Mitchell skating away on a river. Photo by Joel Bernstein.
Joni Mitchell skating away on a river. Photo by Joel Bernstein.

This song, one of my favorites, got me thinking about alternatives to the hoary old Christmas carols and songs we grew up with, and may be tired of. I collect some of these songs — not just specialty or humor, but songs that inspire, or put us to reverie.

Washington Post picked up on it: A lot of musicians make great performances of non-standard Christmas tunes.

Joni Mitchell’s “River” has picked up covers by quite a few artists as a Christmas tune.

Does it just mention Christmas, or is it really a song of the season?

For example, Sam Smith:

In a discussion of Joni Mitchell back in April, here on Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (with Paul Sunstone), I noted how people appreciate Joni Mitchell as a songwriter more as time goes on, including the use of “River” in Christmas collections:

Joni Mitchell’s fans are superappreciative, including such people as Judy Collins, who covers Mitchell on several songs.

But generally, yes, I think she’s not considered a great composer by those who compile lists of great composers, and she’s not considered a great singer by those who compile lists of great singers.

Part of the issue is that Mitchell came out of Canada as folk-rock took off. When I first bought her albums they were in the folk section; later they moved to the “pop” section (go figure). Her later albums stayed in rock or pop, even as her love of Mingus and Jazz pushed her work solidly into jazz. I’ve never seen her work listed as jazz in any recording sales store.

So she’s tough to categorize. Is she as strong or influential in folk as Joan Baez or Bob Dylan? Is she as strong in Rock as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (at least half of whom she had affairs with)? Is she as good at jazz as Ella [Fitzgerald] or Tony Bennett? Is she as good a poet as Leonard Cohen?

I think one can make a solid case that Joni Mitchell’s work is as poetic as Paul Simon’s, deserving as much attention for that reason as his. Simon won the Gershwin Award from the Kennedy Center; has Mitchell ever been considered? Is she less deserving than Billy Joel?

One of my criteria: I think every party I attended as an undergraduate, someone put on the album “Blue.” In graduate school, in a hotter climate, Maria Muldaur made a run (time to get away when “Midnight at the Oasis” came on); but “Blue” has stayed a turntable hit for decades. When our oldest son was at the University of Dallas, on one visit I was struck that “Blue” played out of three different apartments in his complex, at least 40 years after its release. It’s not Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” but I think it lasts longer on the play list of people who play them both.

In the past three years I’ve been impressed at the appearance of her song “River” on Christmas song compilations. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” she and her covering artists sing. She captured a feeling of Christmas much as Irving Berlin did, with a more beautiful melody, if not quite as hummable. Has anyone ever compared her to Irving Berlin?

Long post required. I’m not musicologist enough to do it justice, I think.

See these:

“River” has become a movement!

This one is odd; I wonder if someone did a mashup of Charlie Brown and Joni Mitchell, or if the Schulz cartoon organization really did use Mitchell’s tune.

“River” is not ready for use in churches, I think. Still a good song for the time of year, if not the actual religious celebration.

Any other good versions of “River” you like? Any on Christmas albums? Tell about them.

Any other songs you like that aren’t the old chesnuts? Tell us about them, please.

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Rare/Alternative Christmas music 2019: Macy Gray’s call for social justice

December 23, 2019

Some encores from last year. Here’s one in a spasmodic series of posts on Christmas songs you probably haven’t heard a thousand times already, and may actually enjoy hearing. Got a song you’d like to suggest? Suggest it in comments.

Cover sleeve for Macy Gray's

Cover sleeve for Macy Gray’s “All I Want for Christmas.” Amazon image

This one speaks for itself, I think. From experience, I can tell you that playing this song can weed out the Trump supporters in your party attendance rather quickly.

Oddly, I think, it also brings out the dangerous elements of American society to complain about it, judging by comments at the site (go see; there are a lot more):

Grotesque comments at YouTube on Macy Gray's Christmas wishes.

Grotesque comments at YouTube on Macy Gray’s Christmas wishes.

Those thought zombies walk among us. Our cross to bear.

Gray didn’t include it on any album I’ve found.

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Rare, Alternative and New Christmas Music, 2019 reprise: Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas in the Room”

December 23, 2019

Sufjan Stevens lists 100 of his Christmas song performances, 100 to 1; “Christmas in the Room” is #1.

Stevens’ catalog of Christmas is so large it’s a wonder any list can be made without some of his performances on it, and a major piece of work to run a radio station’s Christmas play list without several of Stevens’ recordings included (but somehow they pull that off).

Interesting artist, interesting work.

The Verge lists all 100 of the songs, and explains Stevens’ work on the seasonal stuff.

He’s the kind of guy who would record an album of songs for every state in the union. And yes, he did set out to do that (but slowed down after a few releases, and it is an uncomplete project).

Hey, confess: How much have you listened to Sufjan Stevens’s work?

You may benefit from Stevens’s other songs:

Sufjan Stevens released a 5 EP set of Christmas songs in 2006.

Sufjan Stevens released a 5 EP set of Christmas songs in 2006.


Scrooge's continuing Christmas gift: Trump administration reduced to three words

December 23, 2019

I wish it were not so. These words of Dickens’s through Scrooge, remain salient, damning and depressing, every day Donald Trump holds the Oval Office. Now Trump’s been impeached, but he still sits on his throne, messing up America in every way he can think to do it.

Roberto Innocenti, Scrooge on a dark staircase

Ebenezer Scrooge, up a dark staircase; “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Illustration by Roberto Innocenti, via Pinterest.

It’s a Quote of the Moment (an encore post for the season, with a bit of context thrown in later), Trump’s platform, and life, edited down to just three words, in green:

Darkness is cheap,
and Scrooge liked it.

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1

Isn’t that the entire GOP platform in three words? “Darkness is cheap.” Substitute “Trump” for “Scrooge,” you’ve got the picture.

I think of that line of Dickens’s often when  I read of the celebrations of calumny that pass as discourse in Republican politics these days. Although, with the 2008 renewing of Limbaugh’s contract, it may no longer be true that his particular brand of darkness is cheap. With the advent of Donald Trump’s insult politics, offending America’s allies and all American ethnic groups possible, with un-ironic calls to drop nuclear weapons, GOP politics is even darker than ever.

Cheap or not, darkness remains dark.

John Leach, Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want

Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want, the products of his stinginess (drawing by John Leech, 1809-1870)

Here is the sentence Dickens put before the quote, to add a little context; Scrooge was climbing a very large, very dark staircase.

Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip.

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

Speaking of darkness, a longer excerpt from a bit later in Dickens’s story, when the Ghost of Christmas Present ushers Scrooge to glimpse what is in the present, but what will be the future if Scrooge does not repent:

‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’

‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’ The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

Think of 2014, 2015, and 2016, children abused in Central America and in the Middle East, fleeing as best they can, only to die, off the shores of Greece, on the southern deserts of the U.S., or be cast into incarceration after having achieved a nation whose very name promised them refuge, the United States. “Two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” Dickens described. Whose children? “Man’s.” Yours, and mine.

Christmas is a festival to celebrate light, what many Christians call “the light of the world?” If so, let us work to stamp out the darkness which the unrepentant Scrooge so dearly loved.

Darkness may be cheap, but it is not good.  Light a candle, and run into the darkness, spreading light. We need more light.

Hope you had a merry Christmas in 2016. Let us remember, as Tom and the late Ray Magliozzi always reminded us, the cheapskate pays more in the end, and usually along the way. Is Darkness cheap? Let us then eschew it as too costly for a moral nation, too costly for a moral people.

Is Donald Trump as smart as Ebenezer Scrooge? Is his heart as good as Scrooge’s heart?

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Yes, this is an encore post, mostly. Fighting ignorance is taking a lot longer than anyone thought.

Yes, this is an encore post, mostly. Fighting ignorance is taking a lot longer than anyone thought.

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A little Christmas blizzard?

December 23, 2019

Couple walking in a real Chicago blizzard in 2017

The snowfall on Dec. 24, 2017, was almost a whiteout on Chicago’s North Side at the lakefront. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

End of the Month sales become even more important at the end of December, when they become End of the Year sales, and generally just critical times to hit sales quotas.

I don’t have posting quotas (obviously). But there is a wealth of material to get out before the end of the week.

Ready?

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