By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred four years ago this week, at Christmastime 1897, one of the great tributes to the Christmas spirit ever written hit the pages of the New York Sun. It all began quite unexpectedly when Virginia O’Hanlon took pen and paper and wrote a letter to the editor of the Sun, one of New York’s leading daily newspapers.
“I am eight years old,” began her note. “Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus . . . Papa says, ‘If you see it in “The Sun”, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”
What prompted the letter, Virginia related many years afterward, was the fact that she had many friends who were extremely poor.
“Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus,” she remembered, “for he had never disappointed me.”
But when her impoverished friends who received little or nothing for Christmas claimed there was no Santa, little Virginia “was filled with doubts.”
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So, she turned to her father, who, in the time honored fashion, dodged the question. But he had the perfect mechanism for doing so. Whenever there was confusion or disagreement in the O’Hanlon household over a fact of history or meaning of a word, Mr. O’Hanlon encouraged them to write to the Question and Answer column in The Sun.
“Well, I’m just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,” Virginia declared to her no doubt relieved father.
“Go ahead, Virginia,” he responded, “I’m sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.”
Her letter landed in the hands of veteran Sun editor Francis P. Church. He’d been around a long time, starting as a reporter with the New York Times covering the Civil War. For the last 20 years he’d worked at The Sun, most recently as an editorial writer. Invariably when controversial issues needed to be addressed, particularly those related to religion or theology, Church wrote the editorial.
Somehow Virginia O’Hanlon’s plaintive letter made it to his desk. As a senior editor with plenty of serious work to occupy his time, he could have just as easily passed the letter on to some anonymous staff writer for a quick innocuous reply. But something in the letter made him pause. Perhaps, he thought, this was an opportunity to say something meaningful about life, dreams, and innocence in an increasingly skeptical and commercial world. He seized the opportunity.
“Virginia,” he wrote, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds . . . 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 to 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 childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
” No Santa Claus? Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Church’s “Yes, Virginia” editorial became an immediate sensation. Newspapers across the country reprinted his manifesto to faith and imagination and the public loved it. The next year at Christmastime, The Sun reran the editorial and once again it made its way into newspapers from coast to coast. Now officially recognized as a classic, The Sun published Church’s p’an to innocence annually until the paper went under in 1949.
Church retired a few years after writing the editorial and died in 1906. Virginia O’Hanlon grew up and graduated from New York’s Hunter College in 1910. She went on to a 47-year career in the New York City school system, first as a teacher and later as a principal. Every year she received mail about her Santa Claus letter. She cheerfully answered every one, and included a card bearing the text of Church’s editorial.
Virginia O’Hanlon, the 8-year old girl whose question prompted perhaps the most famous defense of the Christmas spirit, died in 1971 at the age of 81.
And Santa Claus? As one tough newsman once put it, “Thank God he lives and lives forever.”
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 22, 1691: Defeated by King William, Patrick Sarsfield and 16,000 soldiers (known as the Wild Geese) sail for France.
Dec. 24, 1889: Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell is named as “co-respondent” in divorce papers filed by Capt. William O’Shea. Revelation of Parnell’s affair with O’Shea’s wife, Kitty, leads to his downfall as a public figure.
Dec. 24, 1948: St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City provides the setting for the first midnight Mass broadcast on television.
Dec. 20, 1820: playwright Dion Boucicault is born in Dublin.
Dec. 21, 1865: Revolutionary Maude Gonne is born in Hamshire, England.
Dec. 21, 1876: Labor leader James Larkin is born in Liverpool, England.
Dec. 23, 1862: Baseball manager Connie Mack (born Cornelius Alexander McGilicuddy) is born in East Brookfield, Mass.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at >odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.