W. Joseph Campbell

‘Yes, Virginia': History does trump TV animation

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths on December 9, 2011 at 11:28 am

CBS is to air tonight its vapid Christmas season special, “Yes Virginia,” which is based on the old New York Sun’s timeless editorial reply to an 8-year-old girl, who in 1897 inquired about the existence of Santa Claus.

The charmless, animated CBS program takes great liberties with the real back story to the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, which was published in the Sun on September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns on editorials.

The Sun’s editorial was a response to young Virginia O’Hanlon who shortly after her 8th birthday in July 1897 wrote to the newspaper, imploring:

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

Francis P. Church

The Sun’s reply, written by a retiring editorial writer named Francis P. Church, said in part:

“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.”

In the CBS interpretation, Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and strangely obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus.

Church, the editorial’s author, is depicted as scowling, abrupt, hard-hearted.

Neither portrayal is convincing, neither is realistic.

Church is cast as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church wasn’t editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun of 1897 was no tabloid.

What’s more, the CBS show had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

Not so.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia wrote the letter in the summer of 1897. The Sun published its editorial-reply on page 6 of its issue of September 21, 1897.

What became the famous essay in American journalism was, in its first appearance, inconspicuous and obscure: It certainly was not introduced with large headlines on the front page, as the CBS show has it.

Its headline posted a timeless question:

“Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial was no instant sensation. It was not an immediate hit. And the Sun did not reprint the editorial every year at Christmastime, as is commonly believed.

Indeed, it took years for the newspaper to embrace “Is There A Santa Claus?”

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it wasn’t until the mid-1920s when the Sun began routinely publishing the essay in its editorial columns at Christmastime.

What helped kept the editorial alive were the newspaper’s readers.

They found it memorable. They found joy, solace, and inspiration in the passages of “Is There A Santa Claus?”

In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.

A letter-writer told the newspaper in 1926 that the editorial offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

In 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the essay to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

The CBS program hints at none of that. It offers no indication that the editorial’s fame rests at least in part on generations of readers who, collectively, proved to be far more perceptive than editors of the Sun in identifying the essay’s significance and enduring appeal.

If anything, the tedious CBS show demonstrates anew that history’s back story is often far richer, and far more interesting, than TV fare.

There’s of course little surprise in that observation. As Richard Bernstein wrote in 1989 in a terrific essay about movies and history:

“There are, after all, times when the facts speak far more dramatically than any fictionalized account of them ever could.”

WJC

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  1. […] and the Christmas spirit published in 1897 in the old New York Sun long ago became the best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism. It also is decidedly myth-prone, as recent newspaper descriptions of the […]

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