W. Joseph Campbell

CBS and ‘Yes, Virginia': The real story is better

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun on December 11, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Well, that sure was disappointing.

CBS this evening aired a new animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?” (Trailer here.)

The most memorable and most-quoted passage of the Sun‘s editorial declared:

“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.”

CBS took great liberties with the backstory to the editorial and in so doing offered up a tedious show that was neither endearing, clever, nor very believable.

Viriginia O'Hanlon

The animated Virginia is depicted as a waddling, round-headed chubby eight-year-old unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is cast as scowling, grumpy, and cold-hearted. Neither main character is very convincing. Or realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

More important, the backstory to Virginia’s letter and the Sun‘s fabled reply was distorted: The CBS show had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its response, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun printed its editorial on September 21, 1897 — in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in bold headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

The Sun’s question-and-answer column, called “Notes and Queries,” appeared irregularly on Sundays and offered pithy and often witty replies to inquiries on factual matters. The “Notes and Queries” column obviously was not well-suited to address such a question as the existence of Santa Claus.

Virginia also recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry; far from being obsessed, she forgot about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut 50 years ago this month, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given both O’Hanlon’s recollections about having waited and waited for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work, and without the remotest idea of its destiny of permanent interest and value.”

The only explanation that reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had overlooked or misplaced the letter that inspired American journalism’s classic editorial.

Francis P. Church

So the most plausible explanation for the editorial’s incongruous timing lies in the excited speculation of a little girl who, after celebrating her birthday in mid-summer, began to wonder about the gifts she would receive at Christmas.

“‘My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me,’” O’Hanlon said 50 years ago, adding:

“‘I think I was a brat.’”

The real backstory to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the vapid fare CBS offered up: The real backstory has serendipity, anticipation, frustration, and charm.

None of which characterized the CBS show tonight.

WJC

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