W. Joseph Campbell

What became of Virginia O’Hanlon?

In 1897, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies on December 25, 2010 at 8:13 am

Virginia

Virginia O’Hanlon was 8-years-old when she gained a measure of fame that would last her lifetime.

Shortly after her birthday in July 1897, young Virginia wrote to the New York Sun, posing the timeless question: “Is there a Santa Claus?

It took several weeks, but her innocent letter gave rise to the most famous editorial in American journalism. The Sun answered Virginia’s query on September 21, 1897, in an essay destined to become a classic.

The essay was assigned an inconspicuous place in the Sun, appearing in the third of three columns of editorials beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?

Its most memorable passage sought to reassure Virginia–and, as it turned out, generations of youngsters since then.

“Yes, Virginia,” it 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 closed with further 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.”

As I note in my 2006 book, a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia O’Hanlon as an adult embraced the recognition and modest fame that came with her part in inspiring “Is There A Santa Claus?” (She once said in jest that she was “anonymous from January to November.”)

The editorial, she told an interviewer in 1959, when she was 67, “gave me a special place in life I didn’t deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial and to try to make glad the heart of childhood.”

She occasionally read the editorial at Christmas programs, as she did in 1933 and 1937 at Hunter College, her alma mater. Virginia earned a bachelor’s degree there in 1910 and a master’s degree two years later at Columbia University.

She was a teacher in the New York City schools, and became a principal at a school for handicapped children after earning a doctorate from Fordham University in 1935.

At her retirement in 1959, the New York Times observed that Virginia was “one of those rare persons whose given name alone has instant meaning for millions.”

In December 1960, Virginia went on the Perry Como Show and said she had lived “a wonderfully full life.” She told Como in a brief interview that her letter to the Sun had been “answered for me thousands of times.”

She was married for a time to Edward Douglas by whom she had a daughter, Laura Temple. For two years in the 1930s, Temple worked in the advertising office of the Sun.

“They all knew who I was,” she was quoted years as saying about the Sun staff. “And we all had the same feeling about the editorial that my mother had—that it was a classic.”

Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas was 81 when she died at a nursing home in upstate New York.

Her death in May 1971 was reported on the front page of the New York Times beneath the headline:

Virginia O’Hanlon, Santa’s friend, dies.”

Virginia's gravesite (Photo by George Vollmuth, 2009)

She was buried in North Chatham, New York.

At the approach of Christmas in recent years, the North Chatham Historical Society has conducted a reading at Virginia’s gravesite of the letter that brought her fame and of the editorial that it inspired.

WJC

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