W. Joseph Campbell

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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