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.”
“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.”
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.
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