“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus: Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis P. Church

Virginia O’Hanlon in the 1890s

Eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote the New York Sun a letter asking if Santa Claus really existed. Editorial writer Francis P. Church answered her letter and their nineteenth century correspondence still resonates in twenty first century Christmas celebrations.

 Virginia O’Hanlon Asks The New York Sun About Santa Claus

 Some Christmases come with high unemployment rates, losses of loved ones, and loneliness. For some people Christmas brings more care than celebrations. An unnamed Grandpa Scrooge on a recent news broadcast emphasized his feelings by shouting to his grandchildren, “No, Virginia,” there is no Santa Claus!” His rant invoked images of the wistful child, nose pressed against the department store window, experiencing the toys second hand. In many ways, the centuries have distorted Santa Claus, modeled after the good St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, into a symbol of materialism and greed instead of the Christmas spirit of love, goodness, and peace. It’s not always easy to believe in the Spirit of Christmas among a world of doubters.

The Virginia of the grandfather’s rant, eight-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon had the same problem in 1897. The daughter of Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant in Manhattan, Virginia had her doubts about Santa Claus, because some of her friends denied that he existed. She asked Dr. O’Hanlon if Santa really did exist and he suggested that she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper of the day, assuring her that if she saw the answer in The Sun, “it’s so.”

Following her father’s advice, Virginia wrote a short letter to the New York Sun. It read: “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?”

Editor Frank Church Answers Virginia O’Hanlon’s Letter

“Is There A Santa Claus?” was published on September 21, 1897, more than three months before the Christmas holiday. Francis Pharcellus Church, one of the Sun’s editors, answered Virginia’s letter and addressed some of the philosophical issues behind it. He had been a war correspondent during the Civil War at a time when much of society had seen and experienced great -suffering and as a result, felt a lack of hope and faith.

Yet, Frank Church had enough faith and hope left to reply: “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been afflicted by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” He added a few sentences about the narrow human imagination and then he said, “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.”

The New York Sun ran Frank Church’s editorial in September, three months before Christmas. The editors put the editorial in the third of three columns of editorials, buried among such items as “British Ships in American Waters,” and stories about the improvements on the chainless bicycle for 1898.

The Sun’s rivals in New York didn’t comment on the editorial and even the Sun mostly ignored it for the next ten years. The people who read “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” found it moving and every year at Christmas requests to reprint the letter and editorial poured into the New York Sun. Over a century later, it still is the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any English language newspaper and the year 2012 marked the 115 anniversary of the letter and editorial reply.

Some people have doubted that Virginia really wrote the letter, questioning if she would refer to children her own age as “my little friends.” Virginia’s family saved the original copy of the letter and in 1998, Kathleen Guzman, of the Antiques Roadshow authenticated the letter and appraised it at between $20,000-$30,000.

The Real Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis P. Church Laura Virginia O’Hanlon was born July 20, 1889, in Manhattan. In the 1910s, she married Edward Douglas, but he deserted her shortly before their daughter Laura’s birth.

Virginia earned her Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College in 1910, a Master’s degree in Education from Columbia University in 1912, and a doctorate from Fordham University. In 1912, she began her career as a teacher in the New York City School system, and became a junior principal in 1935. She retired in 1959, and died on May 13, 1971, in a nursing home in Valatie, New York. Her grave is at the Chatham Rural Cemetery in Chatham, New York.

All through her life, Virginia received letters about her letter to the New York Sun and when she answered them, she included Frank Church’s editorial. She credited the editorial with influencing her life positively.

Francis P. Church, was born on February 22, 1839, in Rochester, New York and he graduated from Columbia University in New York City in 1859. In 1863, he and his brother, William Conant Church, founded the Army and Navy Journal and in 1866, Galaxy Magazine. William founded the New York Sun and Frank worked on the paper. In 1897, he wrote his famous editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and earned Christmas history immortality. He died at age 67 in New York City, and he is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

“Yes, Virginia, “ Still Has Meaning in the Twenty First Century

Historians and other people have tried to explain the popularity of “Yes, Virginia.” The editorial reminds people of their own past Christmases and it stirs memories of the magic of childhood Christmases. The editorial is a bridge to a time when the television and the Internet didn’t exist and it illustrates that despite technological changes, people still have the same hopes and dreams. It is an example of inspiring, quality journalism, and perhaps, most importantly it has a positive, inspiring message. There is enough hope in it to convince ranting grandfathers wise enough to read it that the Spirit of Christmas isn’t found in things or the lack of them, but in hearts. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!”

References Church, Francis P. “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. The Classic Edition. Running Press Kid, 2004 “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” DVD.