W. Joseph Campbell

More myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun on December 20, 2009 at 2:13 pm

A couple of tenacious myths associated with American journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?,” made another appearance today.

The West Milford Messenger in New Jersey reprinted the editorial in its entirety and then added a few observations, which are in error.

The newspaper said the editorial, which first appeared in the the New York Sun of September 21, 1897, “was an immediate sensation” and “was reprinted annually until 1949 when the paper went out of business.”

The New York Sun

Well, no, not really.

The editorial wasn’t “an immediate sensation.” Nor was it reprinted annually by the Sun, which ceased publication in 1950. Those mistakes are often enough associated with “Is There A Santa Claus?,” though.

As described in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial stirred no comment by other newspapers at the time. And in 1897, the New York City press routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals.

But the oddly timed editorial that contained the passage, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York.

Moreover, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was diffidently embraced by the Sun.

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. On that occasion, the Sun reprinted the editorial with more than 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 this gratuitous swipe:

“Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

Francis P. Church of the Sun

The Sun next reprinted the editorial in December 1906, as a tribute to its author, Francis P. Church, who died eight months before.

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.”

But it wasn’t until the early 1920s when the editorial begin appearing prominently, and without fail, at Christmastime in the Sun.

In the years that followed, readers implored the Sun not to fail to reprint the editorial.

“It will neither be Christmas nor the Sun without it,” declared one reader in 1927.

A letter-writer told the Sun in 1926 that “Is There A Santa Claus?” offered “a fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

“Every year, as I grow a little older,” another reader wrote in 1940, “I find added significance in its profound thoughts.”

WJC

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  1. [...] editorial has become the centerpiece of a number of enduring myths. And it has inspired no small amount of imitation, some of it flip, most of it utterly [...]

  2. [...] as inevitable as the editorial’s reappearance this time of year are sightings of myths and misconceptions associated with “Is There A Santa [...]

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