W. Joseph Campbell

Getting it right about ‘Is There a Santa Claus?’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, Quotes on December 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm

The paean to childhood 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 legendary editorial suggest.

These descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title as well as details about its derivation and its author. Surely, can’t be churlish to expect newspapers to get it right about a newspaper commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.

Is There_NYSunThe editorial was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” as Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute wrote the other day in a commentary for the Tampa Bay Times. (Clark’s commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out.”)

The phrase “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“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.”

The editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years later, recalled the excited speculation that prompted her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897, as is often assumed, but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is probable that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period after reaching the Sun. In any case, the Sun certainly did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as the San Jose Mercury News claimed yesterday in reprinting the editorial.

We know this because that Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir 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.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stated as much Monday.

But that almost certainly was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun shortly after his death, in an exceptional and moving tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “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.”

So why does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon live on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis? These are among the reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming, a commentary without villains or sinister elements. It is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past; it is reassuring somehow to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers a moving reminder to adults about Christmases past, and the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven 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 really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

WJC

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