25 December 2009

“Is There a Santa Claus?”

[Francis Pharcellus Church, New York Sun 21 Sept. 1897: 6. Arguably the most famous editorial ever written--and certainly the most-often reprinted (including in the Sun in 1943 and the Saturday Evening Post in 1988 and 1997)--this column was a response to a letter written by eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon (later Douglas) and gives the answer, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” a line often repeated, parodied, and paraphrased for many purposes during the holiday season. O’Hanlon’s brief letter is included in the response. It is interesting to note that Church, an editorial writer who didn’t even get a by-line for this essay, didn’t want to write the answer when his editor handed him O’Hanlon’s letter. It became an instant sensation.

[Most of us have heard the famous line and we may even know the story, but I wonder how many of us have actually read Francis Church's whole essay. It seems to me worth the time to reprint the wonderful editorial once more.]

We take pleasure in answering at once and 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:

"Dear Editor: I am 8 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?
"Virginia O’Hanlon
"115 West Ninety-fifth Street.”

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 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. 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 may 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, fancy, 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 he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

[The story of Virginia, her letter, and Church’s response in The Sun is told many times every year at Christmastime. I’m not Christian, but my birthday is Christmas Day and I have always loved this editorial and the idea it promulgates. I made a copy of the original column some years ago with the idea of making a holiday card of it, but I’ve never come up with a suitable idea. It seems right, on this day, to spread the sentiment, now 112 years old—but timeless and enduring.

[Laura Virginia O'Hanlon was born on 20 July 1889 in Manhattan. She married Edward Douglas, whom she divorced after a short marriage. She graduated from Hunter College in 1910 and got an MA from Columbia in 1912 and then a Ph.D. from Fordham. She taught in the New York City school system from 1912 until she retired, as a principal, in 1959. Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died in Valatie, New York, on 13 May 1971. Her original letter, thought to have been destroyed in a house fire, was discovered intact; it was authenticated by PBS’s Antiques Roadshow in 1998 and evaluated at $50,000.

[Francis Pharcellus Church, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in Rochester on 22 February 1839. He was a New York Times correspondent during the Civil War and wrote for the New York Sun, where his brother, William Conant Church, was an editor, for 20 years. Church married late in life and had no children; he died in New York City on 11 April 1906.]

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