Once upon a time – more than a century ago – eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon was told that Santa Claus didn’t exist. The girl asked her Papa if there is a Santa Claus and, like many other Papas, he advised her to ask someone else. Well, he actually told her to write to the New York Sun, for once upon a time newspapers were where people got answers to their questions.
She wrote her letter, the Sun gave her the answer she was hoping for, and that editorial became a part of America’s Christmas lore.
I don’t recall ever seeing any of the television specials based on the Yes, Virginia story, so I’ve imagined my own expansion of the tale. A day or two before the Christmas of 1897 the worried little girl reads the newspaper story, and her wavering faith in the holiday legend is restored. The editorial writer, who must have labored mightily over just how to answer the potentially troublesome question, was gratified to see his masterpiece reprinted across the country within a year or two of its original publication.
That’s the story I envisioned – until I decided to write about it, and did a little research.
I learned that Is There a Santa Claus? was first published in the New York Sun‘s September 21, 1897 editorial page, though Virginia had meant her letter – sent weeks earlier – to be printed in the paper’s question-and-answer column. Who sends Santa Claus inquiries to newspapers in late summer?
In her later years Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas stated that she had been born in July, and after receiving her birthday gifts she would begin focusing on what she would receive for Christmas. Perhaps by August or September her parents had heard a bit too much about gifts, which prompted her father to suggest she write to the Sun about whether or not Santa Claus was real.
At the time New York City had numerous daily newspapers, but the New York Sun was the stodgiest one. It printed few illustrations, for editor Charles A. Dana considered them to be “a passing fashion.” Dana prided himself on hiring college-educated staff, and considered his paper to be more professional than the city’s other newspapers.
New York Sun editorial writers were never given a byline, and the writers were told to not disclose which pieces they had penned. The Is There a Santa Claus? writer apparently agreed with the policy of remaining anonymous, and when asked, never acknowledged what he had written. It isn’t known how long he spent on his Santa editorial, for he didn’t talk about his work.
Though September is an odd time for Santa Claus letters to be published a good portion of the Sun‘s readers took notice of Virginia’s inquiry. Many saved the piece, and others may have wished they had. Requests for the editorial to be reprinted began by the following year, but the New York Sun didn’t approve of recycling stories. It was a newspaper that specialized in news, and not trifles.
In 1902 the paper gave in to numerous requests and reprinted the editorial. Then on the Christmas of 1906, soon after the author’s death, the Sun not only printed the essay once more, but broke its own rule and disclosed it had been written by Francis Pharcellus Church. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Sun began to regularly reprint its most famous editorial, and by that time the piece was well known outside of New York City.
What became of Virginia, the girl who’d been so interested in Christmas presents? She considered the answer to her letter to have had a positive effect on her life. Briefly married to a man who deserted her shortly before her daughter was born, she became a teacher, and later a principle, in the New York City school system.
Virginia enjoyed the modest fame that came from her letter to the Sun, and always answered the steady stream of mail she received about her 1897 inquiry. She always enclosed a copy of the editorial in her replies.
Here is what was first published in 1897.
Is There a Santa Claus?
We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
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 is so.’
Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?
115 West Ninety-Fifth Street
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 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 child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal life 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 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 hearts of childhood.