InThePastLane Edward T. O’Donnell
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?”
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.”
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
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: