“Dear Editor, I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus . . . “
Wait — What?!? Please, say it isn’t so!
So began the letter of an unsettled little girl over a hundred years ago. Most everyone is familiar with the phrase “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” but may not be familiar with the fascinating historical information behind it. Such interesting tidbits tend to be omitted and lost over time in subsequent retellings, yet I have always found that the details and history behind an event make the story much more impactful and relevant.
The opening phrase comes from an editorial entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?” first appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of ‘The (New York) Sun’ newspaper in reply to a question sent in by a young girl. The editorial response has since become the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language, though sadly the story behind is most often omitted.
As the story goes, eight-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon first asked her father the question “Is there a Santa Claus?” Virginia’s father, Dr. Phillip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant in Manhattan, suggested that she write a letter to the prominent ‘Sun’ newspaper, advising that “If you see it in ‘The Sun’, it’s so.”
There is some question due to the wording if Virginia actually completely penned the letter all by herself at age eight, or perhaps more likely with the aid of her father.
Regardless, the query arrived at ‘The Sun’ newspaper in search of an answer. An answer from an unimpeachable source, according to young Virginia’s father.
Few may be aware of the rest of the story or what happened in life for those involved.
The editor who prepared the response to Virginia’s question was named Francis Pharcellus Church. Interestingly, Mr. Church had been a war correspondent during the devastating and horrific American Civil War earlier and suffered from a great loss of faith and hope in society afterward.
He was a hardened cynic, an atheist not given to superstition, curmudgeonly, and wanted no part of writing the newspaper’s reply, to the point of initially not allowing his name to even be attached to the piece.
Nevertheless, Mr. Church’s response turned out to be a masterful testimony much more far-reaching than the original, simple Santa Claus question. Addressing the philosophical issues of not only the existence of Santa Claus, he uncharacteristically affirmed Hope, Encouragement, Generosity, Love, and Faith, as well.
Despite being placed seventh in order on the newspaper’s editorial page, even appearing below an article on the newly-invented chainless bicycle, Mr. Church’s reply was both noticed and well-received by readers, as though directed by Providence, and took on a subsequent life of its own which has endured over a century and still going strong.
Reprinting here for everyone, should you wish to share this inspiring piece with your family this holiday season . . . .
“We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
“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 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.
“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 you 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. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
“You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
“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.”
Virginia went on later in life to become an educator, receiving a doctorate from Fordham University in 1930, with her dissertation on ‘The Importance of Play’, a theme later echoed famously by Fred (Mr.) Rogers, that play is actually the work of childhood. Later in life, she credited Mr. Church’s editorial response to her Santa Claus letter to influencing and shaping the direction of her life in a positive manner. She passed away on May 13, 1971, at the age of eighty-one.
At the time of the editorial reply, Francis Pharcellus Church was fifty-eight years old. He passed away a few years later at the age of sixty-seven and is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. He had no children.
One wonders what forces of the Universe combined to bring together such an unlikely pairing? An innocent young girl with her childlike curiosity about Santa Claus, and a childless curmudgeon, to inspire a timeless literary piece of love, generosity, and devotion.
What would the world be and what would we do without Santa Claus? Without Kindness, Hope, Faith, Love, Compassion, Generosity, and Charity? Without Santa Claus embodying the Spirit of Christmas? Without our faith and belief in the unseen?
Truly, there is nothing more real, indeed.
Thank You always for visiting and spending part of your day with us!
Like young Virginia many years ago, we all simply need to Believe.
My Christmas Wish is that the Spirit of Christmas may continue to live within us all throughout the year and inspire us to act in accordance with the better angels of our nature.
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year! — Jim (and Red!)
And in the everlasting words of Charles Dickens thru Tiny Tim —
“God bless us, every one!”
“They err who think Santa Claus enters through the chimney. He enters through the heart.” — Charles W. Howard
“Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do. So the Lord has spread the task among us all. That’s why everybody is Santa Claus. I am. You are.” — Truman Capote
Meet Little Red Bear & His Friends — “Once Upon A Time In A Very Special Woods . . . .”
Find out what readers have to say about Little Red Bear and His Friends!
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“Whenever you give someone a present or sing a holiday song, you’re helping Santa Claus. To me, that’s what Christmas is all about. Helping Santa Claus!” — Louis Sachar
“To say there is no Santa Claus is the most erroneous statement in the world. Santa Claus is a thought that is passed from generation to generation. After time this thought takes on a human form. Maybe if all children and adults understand the symbolism of this thought we can actually attain Peace on Earth and good will to men everywhere.” — Charles W. Howard
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“Whenever anyone was unselfish, that was Santa Claus. Christmas Eve was the time when everybody was unselfish. On that one night, Santa Claus was everywhere, because everybody, all together, stopped being selfish and wanted other people to be happy. And in the morning you saw what that had done.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder