When Virginia O’Hanlon sent a letter to the Question and Answer column of the New York Sun newspaper in 1897 asking if there was a Santa Claus, little did she know that she would engender a deeply cherished Christmas tradition that would outlive her, her century and the one after that.
It all started in July of 1897, the month Virginia turned eight years old. As she would tell a group of Connecticut high school students 62 years later, she always spent the months between her birthday and Christmas thinking about what Santa would bring her. When school started in early September, she shared her musings with her friends and they clouded up and rained all over her, telling her Santa didn’t exist.
Perturbed, she asked her father if Santa Claus existed or if her friends were right, and instead of taking the hit he dodged her question. As a loyal reader of The Sun, he had always said that if anyone in the family had a question, they should write to the Q&A column because “If you see it in the The Sun, it’s so.” Since her father wasn’t answering her directly, she told him she’d just write to The Sun and get the truth from them. He agreed that they’d be sure to give her the right answer, as they always did.
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?
115 West Ninety Fifth Street
Her question never was printed in the Question & Answer section of the paper, as fate would have it. That section was more for witty responses to factual questions. Poking the hornet’s nest of a child’s belief in Santa wasn’t in its purview, so the letter was forwarded to the editorial department where it ended up on the desk of editor Francis P. Church. The son of a Baptist minister, Church had been a Civil War correspondent for the New York Times and at the time of Virginia’s letter had worked for The Sun for 20 years. Church’s background had made him the go-to editor to address thorny theological questions.
His response to Virginia would become the most reprinted editorial in American journalism, widely requested, quoted and beloved from the day it was first published on September 21, 1897.
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.
The Sun had no idea what Mr. Church had wrought. “Is There A Santa Claus?” was printed three months before Christmas in the third column of three columns of editorials. Before it came editorials on pressing matters like Connecticut election law and the new chainless bicycle technology expected the next year. The recently-deceased editor, Charles A. Dana, was an old school journalist who believed reporters and editorial staff should be heard and not seen. The editorial was printed anonymously and would remain unattributed until after Church’s death in 1906.
The legend that has grown around the editorial has it that The Sun immediately began reprinting it every Christmas until its demise in 1949. That’s not so. In fact, The Sun resisted for years even as readers deluged it with requests to reprint the column. They finally did so only in 1902, and they weren’t very gracious about it:
Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield. Scrap books seem to be wearing out.
They only printed it again after Church’s death in 1906, crediting him as the author for the first time. After that, they were more willing to publish it and far more respectful of its fans. In the 1913 reprint they even went so far as to compare it to the Gettysburg Address in the wide familiarity with and love for its wording.
The Sun finally embraced the beloved piece fully in 1924 and made it the lead editorial every Christmas from that point onward. Virginia O’Hanlon went on to get a BA from Hunter College in 1910, a Masters in Education from Columbia in 1912, and a doctorate from Fordham in 1930. Her doctoral dissertation, entitled “The Importance of Play,” examined the importance of play in childhood and how children in poverty-stricken homes had few toys “to make glad the heart of childhood,” a direct quote from Mr. Church’s editorial.
She was a teacher and principal for 47 years, and continued to receive mail about her letter for the rest of her life. She died on May 13, 1971. You can hear her read from the editorial in this 1963 interview where she talks about her letter and the positive long-term impact the editorial had on her. She has a beautiful voice. I imagine her students loved hearing her read to them.
She mentions in that interview that she had only one child, a daughter, but seven grand-children and two great-grandchildren on the way. One of her great-grandchildren appeared on Antiques Roadshow in 1998 with a scrapbook containing the original letter Virginia wrote. It was valued at $20,000-$30,000. You can see that segment here.