CBS will demonstrate anew tomorrow night that repeat performance is no measure of quality. Or accuracy.
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
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.
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.
Recent and related:
- ‘Yes, Virginia, on CBS: No classic
- Virginia (of ‘Yes, Virginia’) tells of her famous letter, 97 years ago
- The myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’
- More myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’
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