Friday, December 11, 2009

"Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus"

In 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon of New York, age 8, wrote a letter to the New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus. Francis Pharcellus Church, an editor for the paper, wrote a response that has been famous and cherished for many decades.

The actual newspaper clipping is digitized in the graphic on the right.

Church perhaps went a little overboard in his dissertation, but his descriptions of the metaphysical are still worthy and valuable to our modern eyes.

I found the following narrative on the web; the source was unfortunately not provided.

The Story of "Yes, Virginia"

Francis P. Church’s editorial, “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” was an immediate sensation, and went on to became one of the most famous editorials ever written. It first appeared in the The New York Sun in 1897, over a hundred years ago, and was reprinted annually until 1949 when the paper went out of business.

Thirty-six years after her letter was printed, Virginia O’Hanlon recalled the events that prompted her letter:

“Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn’t any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.

“It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in The Sun. Father would always say, ‘If you see it in the The Sun, it’s so,’ and that settled the matter.

“ ‘Well, I’m just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,’ I said to father.

“He said, ‘Go ahead, Virginia. I’m sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.’" And so Virginia sat down and wrote her parents’ favorite newspaper.

Her letter found its way into the hands of a veteran editor, Francis P. Church. Son of a Baptist minister, Church had covered the Civil War for The New York Times and had worked on the The New York Sun for 20 years, more recently as an anonymous editorial writer. Church, a sardonic man, had for his personal motto, “Endeavour to clear your mind of cant.” [cant:  jargon or trite, overused phrases]. When controversal subjects had to be tackled on the editorial page, especially those dealing with theology, the assignments were usually given to Church.

Now, he had in his hands a little girl’s letter on a most controversial matter, and he was burdened with the responsibility of answering it.

“Is there a Santa Claus?” the childish scrawl in the letter asked. At once, Church knew that there was no avoiding the question. He must answer, and he must answer truthfully. And so he turned to his desk, and he began his reply which was to become one of the most memorable editorials in newspaper history.

Church married shortly after the editorial appeared. He died in April, 1906 at age 67, leaving no children. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.  Washington Irving, who wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is buried in the same cemetery.

Virginia O’Hanlon went on to graduate from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts degree at age 21. The following year she received her Master’s from Columbia, and in 1912 she began teaching in the New York City school system, later becoming a principal. After 47 years, she retired as an educator. Throughout her life she received a steady stream of mail about her Santa Claus letter, and to each reply she attached an attractive printed copy of the Church editorial. Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81, in a nursing home in Valatie, N.Y.  She is buried in Chatham Rural Cemetery, Chatham, New York.

Additional links:

See Newseum for the original article and other photos and facts here.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and resting place of Francis P. Church.
Chatham Rural Cemetery and resting place of Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas.

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