W. Joseph Campbell

At Christmas: The remarkable trajectory of an 1897 editorial

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers on December 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

WJC and pal: Merry Christmas

Christmas Eve 2010 is a fine occasion to consider how an obscure essay published 113 years ago in a combative New York City newspaper became the most memorable editorial in American journalism.

The editorial is the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit, “Is There A Santa Claus?

Its trajectory from obscurity is remarkable.

The essay appeared in the New York Sun, in response to a letter from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who implored:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in reply was reassuring.

“Yes, Virginia,” the editorial declared, “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.”

The editorial was published not at Christmas but in September 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials in the Sun–a newspaper that relished the rough and tumble of late 19th century American journalism.

As I noted in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the Sun in its editorials in the late 19th century “was more inclined to vituperation and personal attack than to evoke the eloquence and lyricism” that distinguished “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Indeed, the trade journal Fourth Estate observed in 1897 that the Sun was never happy unless it was on the attack. Given such tendencies, I wrote, “the delicate charm of ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ was decidedly out of place” in the columns of the Sun.

Moreover, the Sun was slow–reluctant, even–to embrace the editorial, usually rebuffing readers’ requests to reprint “Is There A Santa Claus?”

After its initial appearance on September 21, 1897, the essay was not published again in the Sun until December 1902.  The newspaper did so then with a trace of annoyance, declaring:

“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.

“Scrap books,” the Sun added in a gratuitous swipe, “seem to be wearing out.”

Over the years, though, readers persisted in their requests, asking the Sun every year at Christmastime to reprint “Is There A Santa Claus?”

And as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the newspaper ultimately gave in, “tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”

In 1924, the newspaper’s then-owner, Frank Munsey, ordered “Is There A Santa Claus?” to appear as the lead editorial on Christmas Eve. In the years that followed, until the newspaper folded in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

It remains a favorite, 113 years on.

Reasons for the editorial’s enduring popularity are several. Among them are:

  • The editorial is a cheering, reaffirming story, one without villains or sinister elements.
  • It represents a connection to distant time: It is reassuring, somehow, to know that what was appealing in 1897 remains appealing today.
  • It offers a reminder to adults about Christmases past, and the time when they, too, were believers.
  • It has been a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question–and not have to fib much about Santa’s existence.

Interestingly, the essay was written by a veteran and childless journalist named Francis P. Church whose authorship wasn’t widely known until soon after his death in April 1906.

The Sun revealed that Church had written the editorial in what was an eloquent, posthumous tribute.

“At this time,” the newspaper said, “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 … editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

WJC

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