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.
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.”
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.”