Monthly Archives: December 2012

Several books have been written about the "Yes, Virginia" story.

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus

InThePastLane                                                                            Edward T. O’Donnell

Virginia O’Hanlon’s original 1897 letter to the NY Sun.

We’ve all heard the expression before as a means of acknowledging skeptical surprise. Sometimes it’s the full version—“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”—and other times it’s modified to fit specific situations, as in “Yes, Virginia, some professional baseball players don’t use steroids,” or “Yes, Virginia, there are a few people in Hollywood who have married only once.”

The original version, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” originated 115 years ago in 1897. It all began in the summer of 1897 when eight-year old Virginia O’Hanlon took pen and paper and wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun, one of New York’s leading daily newspapers. “I am eight years old,” began her note.  “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?”

A young Virginia O’Hanlon, about the age when she wrote her famous letter to the New York Sun.

What prompted the letter, Virginia related many years afterward, was the fact that she had many friends who were extremely poor.  “Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus,” she remembered, “for he had never disappointed me.”  But when her impoverished friends who received little or nothing for Christmas claimed there was no Santa, little Virginia “was filled with doubts.”

So, she turned to her father who, in the time honored fashion, dodged the question.  But he had the perfect mechanism for doing so.  Whenever there was confusion or disagreement in the O’Hanlon household over a fact of history or meaning of a word, Mr. O’Hanlon encouraged them to write to the Question and Answer column in The Sun.

“Well, I’m just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,” Virginian declared to her no doubt relieved father.

“Go ahead, Virginia,” he responded, “I’m sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.”

Francis P. Church, the editor at The Sun who wrote the “Yes, Virginia” editorial in response to Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter.

Her letter eventually landed in the hands of veteran Sun editor Francis P. Church.  He’d been around a long time, starting as a reporter with the New York Times covering the Civil War.  For the last twenty years he’d worked at The Sun, most recently as an editorial writer.  Invariably when controversial issues needed to be addressed, particularly those related to religion or theology, Church wrote the editorial.

When Virginia O’Hanlon’s plaintive letter made it to his desk in late September, he could have easily passed the letter on to some anonymous staff writer for a quick innocuous reply.  But something in the letter made him pause.  Perhaps, he thought, this was an opportunity to say something meaningful about life, dreams, and innocence in an increasingly skeptical and commercial world.  He seized the opportunity:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. …

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.

… 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. [find the full text of the editorial at the end of this piece]

Church’s “Yes, Virginia” drew a lot of attention and letters from the public, but curiously The Sun only reprinted the editorial twice in the decade that followed.  In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1920s–25 years after the original publication–that The Sun began to re-run the editorial every year at Christmas. Before long it was recognized as a classic. The Sun continued to publish Church’s paean to innocence annually until the paper went under in 1950.

Church retired a few years after writing the editorial and died in 1906.  Virginia O’Hanlon grew up and graduated from New York’s Hunter College in 1910.  She went on to a 47-year career in the New York City school system, first as a teacher and later as a principal.  Every year she received mail about her Santa Claus letter.  She cheerfully answered every one, and included a card bearing the text of Church’s editorial.

Virginia O’Hanlon, the little eight-year old girl whose question prompted perhaps the most famous defense of the Christmas spirit, died in 1971 at the age of 81.

And Santa Claus?  As one tough newsman once put it, “Thank God he lives and lives forever.”

I invite you to follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Several books have been written about the “Yes, Virginia” story.

Full Text of the “Yes, Virginia” editorial –

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.

Sources and Further Reading:


Bill O'Reilly of Fox News has been a leading proponent of the notion that secularists are waging a "War on Christmas."

A Historian’s Defense of “Happy Holidays”

[NB: a version of this op-ed ran in the NY Daily News and Worcester Telegram in 2011]

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News has been a leading proponent of the notion that secularists are waging a “War on Christmas.”

Here we go again. If it’s December  then it’s officially the beginning of that annual ritual established a few years ago — the month-long explosion of outrage on talk radio and cable TV over an alleged “War on Christmas” being waged by a cadre of secularists who employ the phrase, “Happy Holidays.”

Particularly galling to these self-appointed defenders of tradition are retailers who avoid the word “Christmas” in their advertising and in-store decorations. In recent years, groups like Focus on the Family and the Catholic League have launched a variety of offenses, including an “It’s OK to Wish Me A Merry Christmas” button campaign and “watch lists” identifying “Christmas-unfriendly” retailers.

Black Friday madness at a Walmart store

I must admit that the expression “Happy Holidays” once struck me as vapid — essentially the December version of the all-time vapid and meaningless phrase of modern times, “Have a nice day.”

But all this War on Christmas hysteria in recent years has led me to a new and heartfelt appreciation for the expression, for I see that it embodies both a fundamental American value and, strange as it may sound, one of Christmas’ core religious ideals.

Why defend “Happy Holidays”? Let’s begin by focusing on the profound republican virtue that lies at the heart of the phrase: respect for each and every citizen’s right to their own religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs). As Americans, we take for granted the idea that people of different faith traditions can live together in harmony. But our remarkably successful experience with religious pluralism is the exception, not the rule.

Twenty people died in the 1844 anti-Catholic “Bible Riots” in Philadelphia

Who can calculate the oceans of blood spilled over the centuries, from the Crusades to Darfur, in the name of religious zealotry? Indeed, American society was once beset with religiously inspired violence. Scores died in anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon riots in the 1840s and 1850s.

It has taken several centuries to develop and enshrine America’s much-cherished tradition of religious tolerance. It’s a hard-won tradition, and we should remain ever vigilant in protecting it from any group that seeks to impose its orthodoxy on everyone else. The “Merry Christmas, or Else” zealots are not preaching violence, but they are promoting a dangerous, unwelcome and ultimately un-American form of religious intolerance.

Even more compelling, especially for those (like me) who consider Christmas a religious holiday, is the spiritual argument in defense of “Happy Holidays.” Has anyone seriously interested in the religious meaning and significance of Christmas stopped to contemplate the absurdity of a campaign demanding that retailers, as Focus on the Family put it a few years ago, “put Christmas back in the holidays”?

Black Friday madness at a Walmart store

Retailers? You mean the people leading the relentless charge to transform Christmas into a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess, are now responsible for upholding the true meaning of the holiday?

Would anyone take seriously a campaign that urged beer brewers to “put sobriety back into tailgating”? Or Las Vegas to “put commitment back into express weddings”?

A brilliant spoof on the “War on Christmas.”

Put simply, the angry charge against those who fail to say “Merry Christmas” is itself a very real assault on Christmas. After all, the holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus, an event the Bible tells us was hailed by a choir of angels singing, “Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” Raging against the inclusive, tolerant and ultimately harmless phrase “Happy Holidays” runs directly counter to this theme.

Indeed, it’s like making war on Christmas.

So here’s wishing you Happy Holidays — and all that implies.

Follow me on Twitter  @InThePastLane


White Christmas Was A War Song?

The song “White Christmas” was recorded in May 1942 and debuted in August as a song in the film, “Holiday Inn”

“White Christmas,” the song that first topped the charts in early December 1942, was a war song?  It’s true—not in its lyrics of days that are “merry and bright,” of course, but in terms of the context that launched it to an exalted status in the annals of pop music history. In fact, the connection between “White Christmas” and World War II is but one of several surprising details related to the song’s origins.

Like the fact that it was written by a Jewish songwriter (as was the case with many American Christmas songs, including “Rudolph” and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”).  “White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin.  Born Israel Baline in Siberia in 1888, he arrived in America with his family in 1893.  They settled on New York’s Lower East Side, at the time the largest Jewish enclave in the world.  But not everyone in the neighborhood was Jewish.  There was an Irish family living in their building and they took a liking to the young “Izzy” and often invited him into their apartment.  Thus it was in December 1893 that he witnessed his first Christmas in America—a warm a delightful experience he never forgot.  Later as an adult, he married an Irish Catholic woman named Ellin Mackay.  Because they raised their children as Christians, Berlin learned to love the holiday (albeit, its secular trappings) all the more.

In classic American fashion, Russian Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” the most popular Christmas song of all time

Years later in January 1940, in the days following a happy Christmas holiday with his family, the now quite famous Irving Berlin penned, “White Christmas.”  He sat on the song for more than a year, unsure of what to do with it, until approached by a Hollywood studio to write the score for “Holiday Inn,” a film that featured songs about each of the major holidays.  Bing Crosby had been selected to play the lead and sing most of the songs. When he heard “White Christmas” for the first time, he assured Berlin that he’d written a gem.

By the time of the filming of “Holiday Inn,” Crosby was the most famous singer in America, perhaps the world.  His manly, yet emotive crooning was unlike anything that preceded it in the world of pop music.  This was due in part to Crosby’s extraordinary voice, but also to his technique.  He was the first singer to embrace and then master the microphone, a new medium for broadcasting and recording introduced in the 1920s.  Historians of pop music invariably speak of Crosby’s uncanny “caressing” of the microphone with his voice, creating an unparalleled intimacy and connection with his listeners.

Crosby recorded “White Christmas” in the decidedly non-Yuletide season of May 1942.  “Holiday Inn” opened in August and became an instant hit at the box office. So, too, was its centerpiece song, “White Christmas” (the only one sung twice in the film).  It hit the Top 30 charts on October 3 and kept right on marching upward until it hit #1 on October 31, a position it held for an unprecedented eleven weeks.  Decca, the label that produced the record, was swamped with orders and barely kept up with demand.

American soldiers in the Pacific celebrate Christmas in December 1943.

Berlin’s skill as a songwriter and Crosby’s talent as a singer had combined to produce an American classic.  But there was one additional factor that helps explain the phenomenal success of “White Christmas”—timing.  As Jody Rosen writes in his book, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, the fall of 1942 was the first holiday season away from home for millions of American servicemen.  Demand by American GI’s for “White Christmas” records exploded in September – fully three months before the holiday.  The reason is clear: the song stoked their longing to be home with their families.  “In the song’s melancholic yearning for Christmases past,” writes Rosen, “listeners heard the expression of their own nostalgia for peacetime.” Indeed, in a way that astonished Berlin and nearly everyone else, this song of peace and love soon became a most unlikely war anthem.  Unlike George M. Cohan’s World War I call to arms, “Over There!”, “White Christmas” did not appeal to the martial spirit or vengeance.  Rather, it reminded Americans on both the frontline and homefront what was at stake in the war.  “When Irving Berlin set 120,000,000 people dreaming of a White Christmas,” opined the Buffalo Courier-Express, “he provided a forcible reminder that we are fighting for the right to dream and memories to dream about.”  When Crosby visited the troops in Europe in late 1944, his rendition of “White Christmas” brought tears to the eyes of the most battle-hardened soldiers.

For the next five years the Crosby-Berlin classic surged to the top of the charts each Christmastime, hitting #1 in 1945 and 1947. All told, it made the Top 30 sixteen times in the three decades that followed its release.  The song’s popularity and staying power proved irresistible to Hollywood executives who in 1954 released the hit feature film “White Christmas” starring Crosby and Danny Kaye.

Long after the film disappeared, “White Christmas” kept going, Crosby’s recording sold more than 30 million copies – more than any other pop song in history.  Dozens of singers, from Loretta Lynn to Destiny’s Child have recorded versions of the song, pushing total worldwide sales past 160 million – and counting.

None, of course, compare to the original as sung by Crosby in 1942, a song of peace, love, and fond memories of times “merry and bright” that arrived just when the nation needed it.

One last thought to consider: the U.S. has had many of wars since 1945 and each has generated its share of popular songs.  But none of them conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings like “White Christmas.” Indeed, some of the most popular were anthems that protested war—think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” during Vietnam.  The reason is simple: World War II was the last war in U.S. history to begin and end with overwhelming popular support.

Follow me on Twitter  @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Zondervan, 2001)

Edward Jablonski, Irving Berlin: American Troubadour (Holt, 1999)

Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (Oxford, 1996)

Jody Rosen, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song (Scribner, 2007)