It was September 1897, and 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s friends on Manhattan’s Upper West Side had just confronted her with the grim possibility that Santa Claus did not exist. At the urging of her father, she wrote to the New York Sun: “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”
The paper’s lead editorial writer, Francis Pharcellus Church, a 58-year-old journalist who’d been a Civil War correspondent, received O’Hanlon’s handwritten note from his boss. He reportedly “bristled and pooh-poohed” when asked to respond. Yet, he quickly crafted a detailed reply (first published anonymously) that has moved millions of people, becoming “history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial.”
The New York Sun's Reply To "Is There A Santa Claus?"
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:
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.
Young Virginia O’Hanlon went on to earn a doctorate at Fordham in 1930 and later became an assistant principal in the New York City public school system.
A Message For Children Of Yesterday: “Seek Out These Trusting Children”
During the 1930s, 40 years after her letter first appeared in the Sun, Douglas published a follow-up letter in a booklet titled Is There a Santa Claus? A Little Girl’s Question Answered. She wrote:
Dear children of yesterday and today, when that question was asked, I, a little girl, was interested in finding out the answer just for myself. Now, grown-up and a teacher, I want so much that all little children believe there really is a Santa Claus. For, I understand how essential a belief in Santa Claus, and in fairies too, is to a happy childhood.
Some little children doubt that Santa still lives because often their letters, for one reason or another, never seem to reach him. Nurses in hospitals know who some of these children are. Teachers in great city schools will know others.
Dear children of yesterday, won’t you try to seek out these trusting children of today and make sure that their letters in some way reach Santa Claus so that “he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
That, I think, is the best way of proving there is a Santa Claus, both for ourselves and for the children. Do you remember how Peter Pan once asked us to show our belief in fairies? You will of course do it a little differently, but you will each understand how. So, like Peter, I say, “Show you believe, please show you do,” and I shall always be gratefully yours,
Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas
Virginia’s Legacy: “A Wonderfully Full Life”
Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, in a nursing home near Albany, New York. She was 81. But the message she elicited through Francis Church lives on, as does her own faith in the spirit of Christmas.
In December 1960, one year after she retired from the New York public school system, she appeared as a guest on the Perry Como Show. She spoke about her career as an educator and her family, saying she’s had “a wonderfully full life.”
“In other words, you’re convinced, really convinced there is a Santa Claus,” Como says.
“Absolutely,” she responds, before proceeding to read the words that made her famous. “This letter has been answered for me thousands of times.”
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