W. Joseph Campbell

Saturday at Newseum: Telling the back story to ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I’ll be discussing American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial at a program tomorrow afternoon at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

The editorial is, of course, the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit that ran 113 years ago in the old New York Sun beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

I’ll be speaking about the back story to the classic editorial at 3:30 p.m. in the Newseum’s Knight studio, near the close of what is billed as “‘Yes, Virginia,’ Family Day.” The essay often is referred to as “Yes, Virginia,” owing to its most famous passage–“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

As I note in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial was rather obscure and inconspicuous in its first appearance.  “Is There A Santa Claus?” was published in the third of three columns of tightly packed commentaries on topics that ranged from the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law to the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

The editorial’s timing was odd and incongruous, too. “Is There A Santa Claus?” first appeared in the Sun on September 21, 1897–more than three months before Christmas.

As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the best explanation for the puzzling 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.”

The little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon who, in her excited speculation, wrote to the Sun, saying:

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

As she recalled years later, the letter was sent soon after her 8th birthday in July 1897. But the editorial reply in the Sun didn’t appear until more than two months had passed.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in 1959, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Apparently, the Sun had misplaced or overlooked her letter. It eventually turned up on the desk of Edward P. Mitchell, the editorial page editor, who asked Francis P. Church to craft a reply.

Years later, Mitchell wrote that Church, a retiring, taciturn journalist, “bristled and pooh-poohed” at the request but finally “took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.

It took Church less than a day to draft the editorial that would ensure him enduring posthumous fame. (His authorship wasn’t disclosed by the Sun until shortly after his death in 1906.)

“Virginia,” Church wrote in the editorial, “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.”

After ruminating about the dimensions of human imagination, Church opened a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most memorable passages:

“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.”

It sometimes is claimed that “Is There A Santa Claus?” was an instant sensation. In fact, it attracted no immediate attention. As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“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 prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York City.”

But “readers noted it and found it memorable,” I add. “In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.” While it took years, the newspaper grudgingly acquiesced.

From 1924 until the newspaper’s last Christmas before folding in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

“Ultimately,” I note, “the newspaper gave in—tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”

WJC

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