In the few years I have been a newspaper editor, I've never had the privilege of answering a letter quite like little Virginia O'Hanlon's. But, I know if I did, my response would be very similar to the one published a little more than 115 years ago by New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church.
Because I know there is a Santa Claus. I know it with every fiber of my being.
In tough times like these, I am frequently reminded of the tough years that hit my family during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. That economic downturn all but killed off my grandfather's civil engineering firm.
The fact my father worked for that firm, as well, only ensured the Farm Crisis soon became the Eschliman Family Crisis. Ultimately, my grandfather had to lay off his own son, mere weeks before the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year holiday season.
I’ve had the unfortunate duty to lay off employees in the past, but I can’t possibly imagine the pain one would feel having to tell your own flesh and blood, “Sorry, you’re going to have to look for other work.”
So, at the ripe old age of 12, I learned about the dire consequences of not having a job: we lost our home, we lost our quality of life, and I think we lost some of our dignity along the way.
That’s probably why I’ve never gone more than a couple weeks without a job since.
I learned how to go dumpster diving for bread as soon as the grocery store’s back door closed after it was tossed out. I learned how to make a single can of Spam feed a family of four — twice. And, I learned how hard you have to work to take care of a family.
My father wound up taking three jobs to support us: he started his own art studio, painting murals and created stained glass artwork; he took a night-time job at the local Domino's Pizza (to this day, I still love that stuff); and, he accepted an offer to wear a certain red suit during the Christmas shopping season for the local Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber director offered a little extra if I would be willing to dress up as one of the red-clad man’s long-eared helpers. I did it — only because I wanted to help my family — but the costume was humiliating.
Football/basketball/baseball players don’t wear tights, especially bright green tights, especially when every one of his friends would be coming by every night to “wish him well.”
Finally, the last day came: Christmas Eve. I absolutely could not wait for the workshop to close down so I could put that costume behind me. The crowd was fairly light that evening, so with about 20 minutes until closing time, I pretty much had everything put away.
About that time, a little girl came in. Immediately, you could tell she was in about as bad a situation, if not worse, as our family. She had a coat that was at least one size too small, no hat, and no mittens, and the stringy locks of her dirty blonde hair didn’t completely cover her dirt-smudged cheeks.
If Dickens had written his books in the 1980s, this would have been the model for many of his downtrodden characters. But what you couldn't shake was the fact this was a real human being — a child who was obviously suffering at Christmastime.
She shyly asked if she could see the boss, so I led her up to where the man in red was sitting. They talked for almost the entire 20 minutes remaining, and then, she took off. I didn’t know it then, but apparently, she had shared her entire story with the only human being she thought could make a difference.
He told me, but only after many years: her mother was single, and working two jobs to make ends meet, but her brother had just recently become sick, which pulled her mother away from work. More than anything, she wanted a doll for herself and a truck for her brother, and some new clothes for her mother.
Just as we were locking up, the Chamber director stopped by with my father’s final payment. I think Dad planned on using it to buy a few last-minute gifts for my sister and I, stuff that hadn't come in the Salvation Army gift box the night before.
But I already knew what my father had in mind before we even left the workshop. Still in our “work gear,” we made a beeline for the local discount store.
We got the little girl her doll, and her little brother his truck, as well as coats, hats, and mittens for them both. We then picked out some festive holiday food items from the grocery store, and put the rest of the money in an envelope.
Then, the red-clad man made one early, special delivery.
I didn’t go with, so I have no idea what the reaction was. My father was only in the apartment for three or four minutes, but when he returned, he was grinning from ear to ear — you could tell, even under that fake beard of his.
When we got home, however, my stepmother wasn’t as joyful.
She couldn’t believe we had “misspent the family’s money” like that. What were we thinking? It was probably just a scam. We’re in just as bad of shape as that family, why didn’t we think about our family’s needs before we started acting like the Salvation Army.
The next morning, I think she realized how wrong she had been.
When my sister and I woke up, we ran downstairs to see what Santa had left for us under the tree. We each got four of five toys — I honestly don’t remember a single one of them — and some candy and fruit (Christmas oranges were always my favorite).
It had snowed that night, so after we opened presents, I went outside to scoop the sidewalk. Just inside the screen door, however, was an envelope. It was addressed to my dad, and inside were crisp, $100 bills — five of them — but no card, no note, no name.
Near as I can tell, Santa appreciated us helping with his work.
Now, I don’t expect that every time I do something nice for someone, I’m going to see financial reward. That kind of mindset is preposterous, to say the least, but it certainly reinforced we had done something good the night before.
And, every Christmas since, I’ve made sure I do something good for someone else, even if it’s just a small gesture. I hope by sharing this story, one of you is also inspired to do good for others. Because, beyond the presents, the wrapping paper, the bows, the lights, and the tinsel, giving of one’s self is really what Christmas is all about.
“For God so loved the world that he gave is one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (NIV)
If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
Bob Eschliman is editor of the Daily News. He may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at firstname.lastname@example.org via email.