About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (1974)

My photo of an advertisement from a 1974 TV Guide magazine. Remember watching this classic?

When I was growing up in the 1970s, Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus was must-see TV during the holidays. The half-hour animated special has since fallen from most viewers' favorites list but re-watching it recently reminded me of its strengths and charm. Let's revisit this cartoon classic and see how it fits in with other Christmas entertainment.

Hand drawn images are used throughout this 1974 cartoon.

1974's Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus was produced and directed by Bill Melendez, and produced and written by Mort Green. The following year, it was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. Melendez's name may sound familiar because he also produced and directed A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). The animation in Yes, Virginia features an illustrative style (the images are hand drawn), a distinctive style I miss seeing in contemporary animation.

A teacher asking students to write a paper about Christmas--that sounds familiar!? (It's also a major story line in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story).
Virginia is voiced by Courtney Lemmon.

The story is inspired by the real-life Virginia O'Hanlon and a newspaper editorial from 1897 that ran in the New York Sun. This adaptation turns the newspaper's response to the 8-year old's letter to the editor into a more complete story. It begins with Virginia's schoolteacher asking the class to write a composition about Christmas for an upcoming holiday program. Young Virginia decides to write her paper about Santa Claus, confirming her belief in him. After hearing this, the other children in the classroom begin to laugh at her. Most of them confess that they no longer believe in Santa.

Virginia's classroom reflects the popular movement in the 70s to be more inclusive of minorities. Here we see Virginia's friends include Arthur, a Chinese-American, and Amy, an African-American.

Upset by their teasing, Virginia doesn't want to quit believing. She decides to ask some adults about Santa Claus to see what they have to say. After school, the children pass by Officer Reilly and ask him about Santa Claus. They stop by Shulman's candy store and ask Mr. Shulman. And, they ask Arthur's father Mr. Lee Fong, who runs his own Chinese food restaurant. The adults are each wise enough not to discourage the little girl from losing faith.

The Jewish candy store owner encourages Virginia to believe.

Virginia's father explains that we regularly believe in things we can't see.

But Virginia's questions about jolly Ole Saint Nick remain unanswered--has anyone ever seen or met Santa Claus? When Virginia returns home, she asks her father Dr. Philip O'Hanlon about believing in Santa even when no one she knows has seen him. Dr. O'Hanlon shows his daughter images with the stereopticon to make his point. Christopher Columbus sailed west for the New World although no one could see that the Earth was round. Thomas Edison developed the light bulb, Alexander Graham-Bell invented the telephone, and Marconi achieved wireless radio transmissions--although none of them had seen these things before. Virginia is inspired by these words but she is still a little skeptical. The newsboy on the corner selling papers recommends to Virginia that she write a letter to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper, an institution that prides itself on its truthful reputation: "If you see it in the Sun, it's so."

I love the period references in this turn-of-the-twentieth-century story, such as the stereopticon, the clothing, and diversity of residents dwelling in New York City.

Tommy, the newsboy who sells papers on the street corner.

Tommy convinces Mr. Church that it would be wise to respond to Virginia's letter.

Francis Church, the editor at the New York Sun, receives Virginia's letter and he's not sure how to respond. We see the man walking the streets of New York City experiencing holiday cheer from everyone he meets. Church's spirit is even given a nudge from Tommy, the newsboy who is Virginia's friend. Meanwhile, Virginia waits impatiently to see if her letter appears in the newspaper each day.

The teacher reads the editorial for all to hear.

Eventually, the school holiday program is held and the teacher discusses the children's writing assignment. As a surprise to Virginia, her letter appeared in the newspaper that day, and the teacher reads it and Mr. Church's response to the entire audience. For the full text of the original 1897 editorial written by Francis Church, click here. The inspiring words for adults and children alike still warm the heart--even after more than 100 years. Some things don't change.

Don't be surprised if you get a little choked up--just like Virginia!

A few things about this production stand out to me. I love the animation style here--the backgrounds have watercolor textures that are not just visually stimulating but evoke turn-of-the-century images that may have become water stained or faded with time. I also enjoy hearing the voice of Jim Backus as the narrator. Not only is he a familiar actor on television and film. but he voiced the title role in the 1962 animated classic Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Another interesting voice role is Courtney Lemmon as young Virginia--she's the real-life daughter of Oscar-winning actor Jack Lemmon. And, the closing theme tune is performed by Jimmy Osmond, the youngest sibling of Donny and Marie Osmond. This cartoon is a slice right out of the 1970s.

At the end, this animated special reminds viewers that this story was taken from real-life events.

I also appreciate that this cartoon is inspired a true story. In 1897, an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon did write a letter to the New York Sun newspaper and she received an editorial response from Francis Church--words that are still meaningful and emotionally moving today.

Have you seen the 2009 TV special Yes Virginia?

Did you know that the real Virginia O'Hanlon appeared as a guest in the 1960 Kraft Music Hall/Perry Como Christmas special? And, in addition to the 1974 cartoon, the story has been adapted several more times for television, including the 1991 TV movie version starring Richard Thomas, Ed Asner, and Charles Bronson (yes, THAT Charles Bronson), and the charming 2009 animated TV special with Neil Patrick Harris and Jennifer Love Hewitt using their voices to bring the characters to life. Have you seen any of these adaptions of the story of Yes, Virginia?

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com