W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘‘Is There A Santa Claus?’’

‘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:

‘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

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

Recent and related:

‘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

Recent and related:

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

Recent and related:

Saturday at Newseum: Telling the back story to ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I’ll be discussing American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial at a program tomorrow afternoon at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

The editorial is, of course, the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit that ran 113 years ago in the old New York Sun beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

I’ll be speaking about the back story to the classic editorial at 3:30 p.m. in the Newseum’s Knight studio, near the close of what is billed as “‘Yes, Virginia,’ Family Day.” The essay often is referred to as “Yes, Virginia,” owing to its most famous passage–”Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

As I note in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial was rather obscure and inconspicuous in its first appearance.  “Is There A Santa Claus?” was published in the third of three columns of tightly packed commentaries on topics that ranged from the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law to the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

The editorial’s timing was odd and incongruous, too. “Is There A Santa Claus?” first appeared in the Sun on September 21, 1897–more than three months before Christmas.

As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the best explanation for the puzzling 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 little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon who, in her excited speculation, wrote to the Sun, saying:

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

As she recalled years later, the letter was sent soon after her 8th birthday in July 1897. But the editorial reply in the Sun didn’t appear until more than two months had passed.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in 1959, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Apparently, the Sun had misplaced or overlooked her letter. It eventually turned up on the desk of Edward P. Mitchell, the editorial page editor, who asked Francis P. Church to craft a reply.

Years later, Mitchell wrote that Church, a retiring, taciturn journalist, “bristled and pooh-poohed” at the request but finally “took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.

It took Church less than a day to draft the editorial that would ensure him enduring posthumous fame. (His authorship wasn’t disclosed by the Sun until shortly after his death in 1906.)

“Virginia,” Church wrote in the editorial, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”

After ruminating about the dimensions of human imagination, Church opened a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most memorable passages:

“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.”

It sometimes is claimed that “Is There A Santa Claus?” was an instant sensation. In fact, it attracted no immediate attention. As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York City.”

But “readers noted it and found it memorable,” I add. “In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.” While it took years, the newspaper grudgingly acquiesced.

From 1924 until the newspaper’s last Christmas before folding in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

“Ultimately,” I note, “the newspaper gave in—tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”

WJC

Recent and related:

Editorial writers and ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ What they say today

In 1897, New York Sun on December 25, 2009 at 3:45 pm

New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Word of Mouth” program yesterday aired a quite interesting segment about what editorial writers say these days about the most famous editorial in American journalism, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

It made for thoughtful listening.

And that’s not just because the producer, Avishay Artsy, included some of my observations.

Virginia O'Hanlon

The famous editorial was written in 1897 by Francis P. Church of the New York Sun. The editorial was prompted by a letter from Virginia O’Hanlon, an eight-year-old New York City girl who implored the Sun:

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

In time, Church’s editorial — which included the memorable (if now cliched) passage, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — became an unrivaled classic in American journalism.

As I pointed out in the “Word of Mouth” segment, the editorial “is very cerebral, almost written above the head of an eight year old. But it’s also written in a fashion that he, Francis P. Church, the author, was not condescending. He’s not talking down to her, and that was a real trick he pulled off there.”

Church’s editorial invoked a romanticism seldom found in newspaper editorials, the “Word of Mouth” segment noted in quoting Drew Cline, editorial page editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Church, Cline said, “takes such a unique approach in connecting the unseen world, the world of fantasy and romance to her regular life. And I just thought that was so beautiful. But I just don’t think you could see anything like that today. I just think that connection with the romantic idealism of that era is so far gone at this point.”

Cline also noted that these days, an eight-year-old surely not write to a newspaper but instead “would go to her parents’ computer and Google ‘Santa, real,’ and see what comes up.”

Ron Dzonkowski at the Detroit Free Press suggested that questions about Santa’s existence may be especially pressing to children in Michigan this Christmas, given the state’s beleaguered economy.

“We have by far the worst economy in the nation, the auto industry is in the middle of an enormous shakeout,” Dzonkowski said on “Word of Mouth.”

“We will have lost one million jobs in this state in the decade from 2001 to 2010. And so I suspect that there already are a number of young children in this state that already have been told by their parents, ‘don’t expect too much from Santa Claus this year.’ And so that may have planted the question in their minds, is there really a Santa Claus?”

Peter Cannelos of the Boston Globe said Church’s editorial remains relevant in another respect.

The essay signals, Cannelos said, “what we as newspapers should do and what can be a real lynchpin of our survival and our redefinition of our mission going forward. And that is we should speak to the community in a way that reflects broad recognition of the community values, and speak for people who don’t have a voice.”

Well, maybe.

But rather than speaking for people who lack a voice, Church more likely was guided by the view, current in the 1890s, that editorials should strive for boldness. “Better no editorials than dreary ones,” a journalists’ trade publication had advised in 1894. “Audacity is a necessary feature of every good editorial.”

Audacity certainly characterized “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial was published September 21, 1897, more than three months before Christmas.

Perhaps most striking is how generations  of readers have found solace, joy, and inspiration in the editorial’s passages.

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

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

And 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.”

Merry Christmas.

WJC

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