W. Joseph Campbell

The myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’

In Media myths, New York Sun on December 10, 2009 at 2:33 pm

The media relations folks at American University posted at the Newswise public relations site today a rundown about my research into myths surrounding American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Viriginia O'Hanlon

The editorial, an endearing if cerebral tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit, was published in the New York Sun in September 1897, in reply to the query of an 8-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked in a letter, “Is there a Santa Claus?”

The back story to the famous editorial is discussed in detail in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

The post at Newswise notes the editorial’s enduring appeal and adds:

“This year, Macy’s and the CBS television network are cosponsoring an animated children’s program about Virginia O’Hanlon ….” The show is to air at 8 p.m. tomorrow.  I will discuss the program afterward at Media Myth Alert.

The Newswise item also points out:

“Most people assume the editorial was an immediate hit when first published in 1897 and that the Sun enthusiastically reprinted it every year at Christmastime until the newspaper folded in 1950. Not true, said W. Joseph Campbell, a journalism professor and an expert on media myths at American University.”

Indeed, my research shows that the famous editorial was reluctantly embraced by the Sun. A painstaking review of the newspaper’s year-end issues from 1897 to 1949, or just before the Sun went out of business in 1950, shows that  in the ten years from 1898–1907, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was reprinted in the Sun at Christmastime only twice.

The first time was in 1902 and on that occasion, the Sun did so with a hint of annoyance, stating:

“Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.” The newspaper added a gratuitous swipe: “Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

It next reprinted the editorial in 1906, eight months after the death of the editorial’s author, Francis P. Church.

The Sun then said it was reprinting the editorial “at the request of many friends of the Sun, of Santa Claus, of the little Virginias of yesterday and to-day, and of the author of the essay, the late F.P. Church.”

Not until the early 1920s did the editorial begin appearing without fail in the Sun at Christmastime.

WJC

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