Christmas Eve certainly is a fitting moment to recall Francis P. Church, one of the few editorial writers whose name is to known to generations of Americans.
Church wrote the most-reprinted editorial in American journalism, “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial appeared in the New York Sun in 1897, and over time became recognized as an unrivaled classic, a timeless and lyrical tribute to childhood, faith, and the Christmas spirit.
Church, ironically, was a reticent, retiring man, little known outside a tight circle of friends and colleagues.
He was no self-promoter.
As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Church shunned the spotlight and venerated the anonymity of the editorial page. He probably wouldn’t have appreciated being identified as the man who wrote “Is There A Santa Claus?”
His authorship was revealed soon after his death in April 1906, in what, for the Sun, was eloquent and extraordinary tribute. In an editorial note, the newspaper said:
“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us, we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”
The little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon, who wrote to the Sun shortly after her eighth birthday in July 1897, imploring: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
The task of writing a reply fell to Church, who then was 58-years-old. He and his wife never had children.
Church was said to have taken on the assignment grudgingly.
Edward P. Mitchell, the Sun’s editorial page editor, recalled in his book that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.
Church quickly produced a 500-word reply, without a hint that his editorial would become a classic, and would ensure him a measure of enduring and posthumous fame.
“Virginia,” Church wrote, “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.”
After ruminating a little about the limitations and narrow dimensions of human imagination, Church began a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most lasting and memorable lines:
“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.”
Church closed the editorial with this reassurance:
“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.”
The editorial that became an unrivaled classic in American journalism was essentially buried in its first appearance: It was published in the third of three legs (or columns) of editorials on September 21, 1897.
“Is There A Santa Claus?” was subordinate that day to seven other commentaries, which discussed matters such as “British Ships in American Waters,” ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law, and features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.
Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial about Santa Claus prompted no comment from the Sun’s competitor newspapers in New York City.
But readers noted it, and found it memorable. In untold numbers over the years, they urged the Sun to reprint the essay.
Requests often came from parents of young children, such as the letter-writer in 1918 whom the Sun identified only as D.F.C.:
“I am an old time reader of the Sun and have a little girl, Anna, who seemingly is doubtful about there being a ‘Santa Claus.’ I have told her that if she looks in the Sun on Christmas morning she will be convinced by reading the famous reply of one of your staff writers to little Virginia O’Hanlon, which I have oftentimes read with much pleasure. Please do not fail to reprint it in your coming Christmas number.”
It is unlikely Church would have been much pleased by the Sun’s disclosing his authorship.
He was a guarded, reticent man who respected and even cultivated, the anonymity of editorial-writing. Church spent more than thirty years writing editorials for the Sun. He joined the newspaper fulltime in 1878 after the demise of Galaxy, a literary magazine he established with his brother.
According to J.R. Duryee, a friend whose testimonial the Sun published in April 1906, “Mr. Church by nature and training was reticent about himself, highly sensitive and retiring. Even with intimates he rarely permitted himself to express freely his inner thought.
“I doubt if an editor was ever more consistently loyal in maintaining the privacy of the sources of his journal’s statements,” Duryee wrote. “In our talks together, I have frequently referred to an editorial my intuition told me was from his pen, but never could induce him to own the writing. … I have never known a literary man as ingenuous as he in his self-repression.”
In what he presumed to have been Church’s work, Duryee said he found the imprint of “gentle humor” and “a simple, chaste style.”
His work in “a lighter vein,” Duryee wrote, possessed “rare charm” and was notable in its delicacy of touch.
Duryee did not say so, specifically, but he could well have been referring to “Is There A Santa Claus?”