One-hundred years ago, a reporter for the old New York Sun caught up with Virginia O’Hanlon who, as an 8-year-old in 1897, had written the letter to the newspaper that inspired American journalism’s most memorable editorial, a paen to childhood and the Christmas spirit titled “Is There A Santa Claus?”
The editorial’s most famous lines sought to reassure young Virginia, saying:
“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.”
Seventeen years later, on Christmas Eve 1914, Virginia O’Hanlon spoke about the editorial and recalled it fondly.
“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 told the newspaper’s reporter. “I was eight years old then, just at the age when doubts creep in and when most children get their first touch of cynicism.”
She also recalled having told her father in 1897: “‘I am going to write to the Sun and ask it to tell me the truth, the honest to goodness truth, about Santa Claus. If the Sun says there isn’t any I’ll believe it; if it tells me Santa Claus is real I’ll make those girls at school sorry they ever teased me” by telling her Santa did not exist.
The interview was conducted at the home of Virginia’s parents at 121 West 95th Street in New York City, a few doors from where she had written to the Sun in 1897, saying: “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”
At the time of the interview, Virginia was a married woman, 25-years-old. She was wed at her parents’ home in June 1913 to a jeweler named Edwin Malcolm Douglas. They were the parents of Laura Virginia Douglas, who on Christmas Eve was 9-months-old.
The marriage to Douglas was not to last; he eventually left her. And the Sun’s writeup of the interview 100 years ago hinted at strains in the union.
Virginia’s husband was absent that Christmas Eve. His business, the Sun said “takes him away from New York frequently and keeps him away from the city for long periods and the [Douglas] home in Orange, N.J., would be too lonesome for the wife and child.” So Virginia and the baby decamped to her parents’ place.
Douglas “will be home to-night or early in the morning” Christmas Day, Virginia told the Sun’s reporter, “and we will have a lovely Christmas.”
She spoke at some length during the interview about the Sun’s editorial, which was written by Francis P. Church and published September 21, 1897. The newspaper’s reply surprised and elated her, and her parents, Virginia said.
“It used to make me as proud as a peacock,” she said, “to go along in the street in the neighborhood and hear somebody say, ‘Oh, look. There’s Virginia O’Hanlon. Did you see that editorial the New York Sun had about her?’ And father and mother were even prouder than I, I think. They still show the editorial to callers and just talk people’s arms off about it.”
The day the editorial appeared, her father, Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, “hustled out and came back loaded down with [copies of the newspaper] until he looked like a pack mule,” Virginia said. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.”
The editorial “was a wonderful thing in my life,” she said “and I mean it to be a wonderful thing in my baby’s. As soon as she masters her ABC’s it will be the first thing she will read. I’ll help her over the big words and hard spots, but I want her to get the beautiful spirit of it as quickly as she can.”
The writeup of the interview, published in the Sun on Christmas Day 1914, noted that the newspaper had “never quite lost sight of Virginia. … [I]t is impossible to forget the sort of little girl who wrote so sincerely and trustfully as Virginia did. The Sun knew when she left school, knew when she was married, knew when Laura Virginia opened her blue eyes, and remembered yesterday that Laura Virginia was on the eve of her first Christmas.”
I discussed the back story to the famous editorial in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. My writeup three years ago about the Sun’s interview with Virginia O’Hanlon is accessible here.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- At Christmas: The remarkable trajectory of an 1897 editorial
- In remarkable reunion, descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon gather at Newseum events
- Virginia’s descendants: ‘Ambassadors of the Christmas spirit’
- Editorial writers and ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ What they say today
- Recalling Francis P. Church: No self-promoting author, he
- ‘Yes, Virginia,’ special on CBS: A sad distortion of a timeless newspaper reply
- ‘Yes, Virginia’: History does trump TV animation
- CBS and ‘Yes, Virginia’: The real story is better
- As inevitable as ‘Yes, Virginia,’ at the holidays
- Gotham’s exceptional New Year’s Eve: 1897
- Check out The 1995 Blog
- Getting It Wrong receives major shout-out in New Yorker