'Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus'
One of my favourite Christmas stories over the years has been ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’, which dates from the late 1890s, and more than a century later, remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.
‘Is There a Santa Claus?’ was the title of an editorial The New York Sun on September 21, 1897. Dr Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia O’Hanlon, whether Santa Claus really existed.
He suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, telling her that: "If you see it in The Sun, it’s so." He unwittingly gave one of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it.
She wrote: "Dear editor, I am eight years old. Some of my little 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?"
For many years on his Christmas Eve show for RTÉ Radio on Grafton Street, Gay Byrne read out the reply, which began: "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 to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary the world would be if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith the, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light 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 can see."
The editor continues in such vein, finishing: "No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
Church was a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time that saw great suffering and a corresponding lack of hope and faith in much of society. Although the paper ran the editorial in the seventh place on the page, its message was very moving to many people who read it.
Virginia went on to become a school teacher in New York. She started her career as an educator in 1912, became a junior principal in 1935, and retired in 1959.
She received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her life. She would include a copy of the editorial in her replies. In an interview later in life, she credited it with shaping the direction of her life quite positively.
In 1971, after seeing Virginia’s obituary in The New York Times, four friends formed a company, called Elizabeth Press, and published a children’s book titled ‘Yes, Virginia’ that illustrated the editorial and included a brief history of the main characters. Its creators took it to Warner Brothers, who eventually made an Emmy award-winning television show based on the editorial. Virginia gave the original letter to a granddaughter, who pasted it in a scrapbook. It was feared that the letter was destroyed in a house fire, but 30 years later, it was discovered intact.