W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘New York Sun’ Category

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Yes, Virginia’ special on CBS a sad distortion of a timeless newspaper reply

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, Quotes, Television on December 13, 2012 at 7:29 am

CBS will demonstrate anew tomorrow night that repeat performance is no measure of quality. Or accuracy.

The network will air for the fourth successive Christmas season its charmless, half-hour animated special, “Yes Virginia.”

The show is an unrelieved distortion of  the story behind the New York Sun’s classic editorial reply to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon who implored in a letter to the newspaper in 1897:

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

Church

The Sun’s reply, by a veteran editorial writer named Francis P. Church, declared 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.”

The tiresome CBS show offers none of the charm of Church’s timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit.

Indeed, the program distorts all major elements of the back story of the “Yes, Virginia,” editorial.

Holiday Programming

CBS’ Church: Scowling, loud, irritable

It depicts Virginia is a waddling, round-headed girl annoyingly obsessed about the existence of Santa Claus. It portrays Church as scowling, loud, and irritable.

Neither portrayal is convincing, nor very accurate.

Church is cast as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church wasn’t the editor; he was an editorial writer who relished the anonymity the position allowed.

And the Sun of 1897 was no tabloid.

Not only that, but the CBS show has Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

That’s far from accurate.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia wrote the letter not long after her birthday in July 1897.

The Sun published its editorial-reply on page 6 of its issue of September 21, 1897.

In first appearance, the editorial that has become the most famous in American journalism was inconspicuous and obscure. It was placed in the third of three columns of editorials. It certainly was not introduced with large headlines on the front page, as the CBS show has it.

The headline accompanying the Sun’s editorial posed the timeless question:

“Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial was no instant sensation, no immediate hit. And the Sun did not reprint the editorial at Christmastime every year after 1897, as is commonly believed.

It took years for the newspaper to warm to and 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 at Christmastime.

What helped kept the editorial alive were the newspaper’s readers. They found it appealing and memorable. They found solace and inspiration in its passages.

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

A letter-writer told the newspaper in 1926 that “Is There A Santa Claus” 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 in identifying and affirming the essay’s significance and enduring appeal.

If anything, the vapid CBS show demonstrates that history’s back story can be richer, and far more charming, than repeat holiday fare on television.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:

Virginia (of ‘Yes, Virginia’) tells of her famous letter, 97 years ago

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers on December 23, 2011 at 4:55 am

Young Virginia O'Hanlon

In a newspaper database of the Library of Congress, I found a long-overlooked interview conducted 97 years ago with Virginia O’Hanlon, who as an 8-year-old in 1897 wrote the letter that prompted the most famous newspaper editorial in American journalism.

O’Hanlon said in the interview on Christmas Eve 1914 that she had sent her letter despite her father’s admonition:

“A newspaper has no time to waste on a little girl.”

The editorial that became a classic was published in the old New York Sun, in response to Virginia’s imploring: “Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in its timeless reply reassured young Virginia as well as generations of children who have read the editorial, which memorably declares:

“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’s closing passages were similarly reassuring in saying:

“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.”

In the interview with the Sun 97 years ago, Virginia O’Hanlon discussed her motivation in writing to the newspaper and her proud reaction when the essay was published — comments that offer revealing insight about the back story to the famous editorial.

“I think that I have never been so happy in my life as when the Sun told me that there was a Santa Claus and that he would live forever,” she said in the interview.

Virginia O’Hanlon was then 25-years-old and had been married 18 months to Edwin Malcolm Douglas. Her only child, Laura Virginia Douglas, was nine months old.

O’Hanlon said in the 1914 interview that she decided to write to the Sun in part because of its importance in her family’s household.

She said her father, Philip, “was always talking about the Sun and how you could always find what you wanted in the Sun, and how mother, who loved whist, wrote letters to the whist editor.”

O’Hanlon recalled telling her father: “I am going to write to the Sun and ask it to tell me the truth, the honest to goodness truth, about Santa Claus,” whose existence her schoolmates had scoffed at.

She added: “If the Sun says there isn’t any [Santa Claus] I’ll believe it; if it tells me Santa Claus is real I’ll make those girls at school sorry they ever teased me.

“Father laughed,” she recalled, quoting him as saying:

“The Sun is too busy writing about Presidents and Governors and important people, Virgina. … A newspaper has no time to waste on a little girl. Write if you want to, but don’t be disappointed if you never hear from your letter.”

“Well,” Virginia said, “I sat down and wrote a short letter, trying to say just what was in my heart. Day after day I looked for a letter in reply. I never for a minute thought the Sun would print a long editorial mentioning me by name and using my whole letter.

“Father teased me now and then,” she said, “but I kept hoping and finally” her letter was answered, in an essay published September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials.

(O’Hanlon indicated on another occasion that she wrote her letter shortly after her eighth birthday in July 1897. “My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me,” she told an audience of Connecticut high school students in 1959. “I think I was a brat.”)

Word that the newspaper had published an editorial to answer her letter prompted Philip O’Hanlon to rush from their home on West 95th Street in Manhattan to buy a stack of that day’s Sun.

“Father hustled out and came back loaded down like a pack mule,” she said. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.

“And me? It spoiled me for a while until I was big enough to understand that I, Virginia O’Hanlon, didn’t count for much in the editorial but that the important thing was the beautiful thoughts expressed by Mr. Church and the charming English in which he put his philosophy.”

She was referring to Francis P. Church, a veteran journalist who wrote the essay in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling it would become a classic.

His authorship was revealed by the Sun shortly after his death in April 1906.

The Sun’s editorial, O’Hanlon said in the interview, “was a wonderful thing in my life, and I mean it to be a wonderful thing in my baby’s. As soon as she masters her A B C’s, it will be the first thing she will read.”

The comment anticipated the commitment of her descendants who, over the years, have embraced the obligations associated with the much-remembered and often-reprinted editorial.

O’Hanlon’s grandchildren, notably, have become what the New York Times last year described as “ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to appear at events honoring her, and reading the letter and the response to children in schools and to their own children at home.”

Virginia O’Hanlon was 81 when she died in 1971. The Times reported her death on its front page.

But by then, though, the Sun had ceased to exist as an independent publication. It was merged with another New York newspaper, the World-Telegram, in January 1950.

WJC

Recent and related:

Blaming assassination on overheated commentary: No new tactic

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 10, 2011 at 7:56 am

The extreme attempts to politicize the weekend shootings in Arizona were dismaying and wrong-headed, but not without parallel.

Efforts to link the attack on Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to overheated political rhetoric and, more explicitly, to Republican Sarah Palin and the conservative Tea Party movement were evocative of a campaign more than a century ago to blame the assassination of President William McKinley on the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst.

Czolgosz, assassin

McKinley was fatally shot in September 1901 by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, who, according to Hearst’s finest biographer, was unable to read English.

Even so, Hearst’s foes–notably, the New York Sun–sought to tie the assassination to ill-advised comments about McKinley that had appeared in Hearst’s newspapers months earlier.

One especially ill-considered comment helped fuel the allegations: That was a quatrain written by columnist Ambrose Bierce 20 months before McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901, while greeting well-wishers in Buffalo.

Bierce’s column of February 4, 1900, closed with a reference to the assassination a few days earlier of the Kentucky governor, William Goebel. Bierce, prickly and acerbic commentator, wrote:

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West.
Good reason: it is speeding here [to Washington]
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

As I pointed out in my 2005 work,The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents, “The quatrain attracted little notice or comment until Czolgosz shot the president in 1901.”

Bierce later wrote, ‘The verses, variously garbled but mostly made into an editorial, or a news dispatch with a Washington date-line but usually no date, were published all over the country as evidence of Mr. Hearst’s [supposed] complicity in the crime.”

The Sun led the assault on Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal.

Beneath the headline, “A Menace to Our Civilization,” the Sun on September 12, 1901, accused the Journal of having provoked “an atrocious Anarchistic assault on the President” and declared that yellow journalism had “graduated into a serious and studied propaganda of social revolution.”

Never, the Sun declared, “was an instrument of disorder and sedition used so effectually and none ever had so great opportunities for its malign propaganda.”

Advertisers in the Journal, said the Sun, were “feeding a monster which is using the strength they are giving nutrition to in an effort to strike down the civilization upon which they depend.”

It was of course absurd to claim that Czolgosz’s mind had been poisoned by the contents of the Hearst press. Few other New York City newspapers were inclined to pick up the cudgel, even though not many admired Hearst’s activist-oriented journalism.

And as media scholar Brian Thornton noted in a fine journal article in 2000, “most of the attack against Hearst” in the aftermath of the McKinley shooting was sustained by letters to the editor of the Sun, not by the newspaper’s editorials.

The Sun, it should be noted, had long campaigned against Hearst, having urged in early 1897 a readership boycott of the yellow press, an effort that drew attention but ultimately collapsed.

Hearst

Still, the uproar in 1901 stunned Hearst. David Nasaw, Hearst’s leading biographer, wrote that perhaps for “the first time in his life, Hearst was forced onto the defensive.”

In response, Hearst renamed the Journal the Journal and American, to assert the newspaper’s patriotism. Eventually, he dropped the “Journal” from the nameplate altogether.

Hearst could take a measure of comfort in the insightful and level-headed commentary of journals such as The Bookman, which dismissed the criticism as preposterous.

“As a matter of fact,” The Bookman said in its December 1901 number, “it cannot be shown that any President ever lost his life because his assassins were influenced by the reading of newspaper denunciation.”

The Bookman also noted:

“Indeed, the most severe attacks on President McKinley’s policy were not attacks for which the so-called ‘yellow journals’ were responsible, but they were attacks uttered by such sincere and high-minded men as Senator [George] Hoar and ex-Secretary [Carl] Schurz–both of them Republicans–and by newspapers of great ability, such as the Evening Post” of New York.

The Bookman added:

“It is unthinkable that a press censorship should ever be established in our country; for in its practical operation it would mean that the opposition would have to abstain from all newspaper criticism of the party in power.”

There are in The Bookman commentary echoes of well-reasoned and insightful commentary written in the aftermath of the rampage in Arizona that left six people (a federal judge among them) dead and Giffords clinging to life.

Notably, media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in a column posted yesterday at slate.com that only “the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts.

“Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons,” Shafer wrote, “infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.”

He’s absolutely right.

And to seize on political shootings to score political points is as appalling as it is unworthy.

WJC

Recent and related:

Gotham’s exceptional New Year’s Eve: 1897

In 1897, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 31, 2010 at 7:05 am

W.R. Hearst

Publisher William Randolph Hearst was at the peak of his most innovative period 113 years ago, when he organized a New Year’s Eve bash for Gotham in 1897.

The year then closing had been a stunning one for Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal.

He had introduced in 1897 a hearty brand of activist journalism: The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it. And it meant that newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves routinely and conspicuously into public life, to address the ills that government would not or could not confront.

Rivals scoffed and sneered; “yellow journalism” they called it.

But the stunning character of Hearst’s “journalism of action” had been demonstrated in October 1897 with the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed by Spanish authorities in Havana for months without charges.

The Cisneros rescue, as I wrote in my 2006 book–a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–was the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history, “an episode unique in American journalism.”

In late summer 1897, as Cuba’s guerrilla war against Spanish colonial rule ground on, Hearst sent a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal correspondent in Havana.

Rescuing Evangelina

But Decker was under orders to organize the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros. With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and the vital support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker succeeded in breaking her out of jail and getting her aboard a steamer to New York.

The “greatest journalistic coup of this age,” the Journal crowed, never reluctant to indulge in self-promotion. The “journalism of action” never seemed more robust, or more proud of itself, I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Rivaling the Cisneros jailbreak as the crowning achievement of the “journalism of action” was the 1897 New Year’s Eve bash that Hearst threw for New York City.

It was an exceptional occasion, marking as it did the consolidation of the boroughs of New York and the birth of the modern mega-city.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, New York officials “had planned no special event to celebrate the political consolidation of the five boroughs… William Strong, the city’s outgoing mayor and a foe of consolidation, suggested that a mock funeral would be more appropriate than a celebration. Hearst would have none of that.”

Hearst stepped forward to organize what the Journal called a “great carnival,” a celebration replete with “volcanoes of fireworks and floods of pulse-quickening music,” all centered around City Hall Park, near what then was Newspaper Row.

Weather conditions were awful that night in lower Manhattan. Drizzling rain turned to ice and snow during the waning hours of 1897. The weather was so poor that the Journal announced in the afternoon that festivities would be postponed. An hour or two later, it reversed itself and the celebration was back on.

Perhaps 100,000 merry-makers braved the inclement conditions to watch the parade of floats that snaked its way down Broadway to City Hall.

As midnight struck in New York, the mayor of San Francisco (as Hearst had arranged), pressed a button sending an electric current across country to lower Manhattan. The electric charge sent a small white object climbing the flagpole at City Hall.

Reaching the top of the staff, the object unfurled and revealed itself to be the flag of New York City. And with that, one news account said, “bedlam broke loose.”

Fireworks burst over lower Manhattan, sending up what one reporter called “showers of blazing stars,” and a National Guard battery began firing a salute of 100 guns.

Just as the Journal had promised, the celebration was the “luminous starting point from which the history of the expanded New York will be dated.”

Even such bitter rivals as the New York Sun complimented the Journal for having organized and underwritten the celebration, which cost at least the contemporary equivalent of $500,000.

“It was such a display of fireworks and enthusiasm as perhaps had never been seen before in the State of New York, certainly not in the vicinity of New York city,” the Sun declared, adding:

“The show that the New York Journal provided was all that that paper claimed it would be.”

It was an exceptional New Year’s Eve in Gotham–and, as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it also was “a tremendous opportunity for the Journal to indulge in a celebration of its activist ethos.”

WJC

Recent and related:

Virginia’s descendants: ‘Ambassadors of Christmas spirit’

In 1897, Debunking, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

The New York Times carried a fine article Christmas Day about how descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon “have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit,” offering ties to the girl who long ago inspired American journalism’s best-known editorial.

Young Virginia O'Hanlon (Courtesy Jim Temple)

Virginia’s letter to the old New York Sun in 1897 gave rise to the essay, “Is There A Santa Claus?” No other editorial has been as often recalled or reprinted as that tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit.

Her letter implored: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The editorial written in reply declares in its most memorable and familiar passage:

“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.”

The Times article yesterday wasn’t much overstating matters in observing that Virginia, who died in 1971, “has become as much a symbol of Christmas as Ebenezer Scrooge or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

The heart of the article described how Virginia’s descendants “have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to appear at events honoring her, and reading the letter and the response to children in schools and to their own children at home. … Come December, their names and faces turn up in newspapers and on television programs around the world, as well as in the company newsletters of their various workplaces.”

I became acquainted with the hospitality of some of Virginia’s descendants while researching my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, and know first-hand how helpful and accommodating they can be.

They are by no means pushy or mercenary in keeping alive the memory of Virginia O’Hanlon.

Jim Temple, Virginia’s only grandson, is perhaps the family’s point person in responding to requests for information.

In 2005, Temple welcomed me to his home in upstate New York where he and I reviewed the contents of a large cardboard box in which he kept newspaper clippings, photographs, and other totems about Virginia.

He was generous with his time, recollections, and artifacts.

My visit allowed me to unravel a small but persistent mystery about “Is There A Santa Claus?” That was why a Christmastime editorial had been published in late summer.

The essay (which the Sun in 1906 revealed had been written by a veteran and childless journalist named Francis P. Church) appeared on September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials.

In Temple’s box of memorabilia was clipping of a Connecticut newspaper article that had been published in December 1959. The article–a key to resolving the question of the editorial’s odd timing–described Virginia O’Hanlon’s talk to a high school audience in Fall River, Connecticut.

She was quoted as having said:

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

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Virginia’s letter, after arriving at the Sun, probably was overlooked or misplaced for an extended period. “That there was such a gap seems certain, given both O’Hanlon’s recollections about having waited for a reply and the accounts that say Church wrote the famous editorial in ‘a short time,'” I pointed out.

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun had misplaced the little girl’s letter.

That means Virginia wrote her letter to the Sun well before September 1897.

The 1959 newspaper article also quoted Virginia as saying:

“My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me. I think I was a brat.”

Thus, as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the most plausible explanation for the editorial’s odd 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 “excited speculation” gave rise to Virginia’s letter to the Sun.

WJC

Recent and related:

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

Recent and related:

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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‘Yes, Virginia,’ on CBS: No classic

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

I wrote a year ago about the charmless CBS animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s famous letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s best-known editorial.

The show aired again last night; watching it was headache-inducing.

It utterly lacks the serendipity, anticipation, disappointment, and surprise that characterized the real back story to Virginia’s 1897 letter.

Her appeal to the Sun — “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”–gave rise to an editorial published beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial’s most memorable and most-quoted passage declared:

“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.”

As I noted last year at Media Myth Alert, CBS took great liberties with the back story in offering up a tedious half-hour show that was neither accurate nor entertaining. It’s a distortion of a charming story.

Francis P. Church

The animated Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is depicted–no, misrepresented–as scowling, dismissive, and hard-hearted.

Neither character is convincing. Neither is realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

The CBS show also had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun published the editorial on September 21, 1897 — obscurely, in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in big, sensation-stirring headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

She recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry. Far from being obsessed, little Virginia stopped thinking about it after a while.

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

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given O’Hanlon’s recollections about waiting and waiting for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work.”

Virginia O'Hanlon

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s prolonged wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had misplaced the letter that inspired a classic editorial, one that would recall the newspaper long after it folded in 1950.

The real back story to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the cheerless, vapid fare that CBS offered up.

Unlike the 1897 editorial, the wretched animated show is destined to be no classic.

WJC

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As inevitable as ‘Yes, Virginia,’ at the holidays

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 15, 2010 at 8:59 am

The approach of the year-end holidays brings inevitable reference to American  journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

The lyrical and timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit was first published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, in response to the inquiry of an 8-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon.

“Please tell me the truth,” she implored, “is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in reply was reassuring:

“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.”

Almost as inevitable as the editorial’s reappearance this time of year are sightings of myths and misconceptions associated with “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Today, for example, an online reference site for journalists, Followthemedia.com, says in an essay that “Is There a Santa Claus?” was published on the front page of the Sun, on September 21, 1897.

The date is correct. But the famous editorial was given obscure placement in its debut. As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms:

“‘Is There a Santa Claus?’ appeared inconspicuously in the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on 21 September 1987. It was subordinate to seven other commentaries that day, on such matters as ‘British Ships in American Waters,’ the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law, and the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.”

“Is There A Santa Claus” appeared on page six, the editorial page of the Sun.

Interestingly, the oddly timed editorial about Santa Claus–appearing as it did more than three months before Christmas–prompted no comment from the many newspaper rivals to the Sun.

That’s somewhat curious because the New York City press of the late 19th century was prone–indeed, eager–to comment on, and disparage, the content of their rivals.  That’s how the enduring sneer “yellow journalism” was coined, in early 1897.

In its headline today, Followthemedia suggests the editorial’s most-quoted passage — “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — are the words most famous in American journalism.

Maybe.

But a stronger case can be made for  the New York Times logo, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which in 1897 took a permanent place in the upper left corner of the newspaper’s front page, a spot known in journalism as the “left ear.”

As I noted in a blog post nearly a year ago: “The ‘Yes, Virginia,’ passage is invoked so often, and in so many contexts, that no longer is it readily associated with American journalism. ‘Yes, Virginia,’ long ago became unmoored from its original context, the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897.”

I also suggested then that the famous vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst–“You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war“–may be more famous in journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

The Hearstian vow, as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is almost certainly apocryphal. But like many media-driven myths, it lives on as an anecdote too delicious not to be true.

What is striking and perhaps exceptional about “Is There A Santa Claus?” is its timeless appeal–how generations of readers have found solace, joy, and inspiration in its passages.

A letter-writer to the Sun in 1914 said, for example: “Though I am getting old,” the editorial’s “thoughts and expressions fill my heart with overflowing joy.”

In 1926, a letter-writer told the Sun that “Is There A Santa Claus?” offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

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

WJC

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