It is the most celebrated letter to the editor and its reply the most celebrated editorial in American journalism.
In the summer of 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon sent a letter to The New York Sun asking if Santa Claus was real. An editorial writer named Frank Church was assigned the task of answering Virginia’s letter. Church’s response, published anonymously Sept. 21, is a Christmas classic.
Church’s editorial is the perfect bookend to the American reinvention of Christmas that took place during the 19th century, when the likes of Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, Thomas Nast and an increasingly sophisticated army of marketers transformed Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas into the fat, jolly and red-suited Santa familiar to children today. By the time Virginia wrote her famous letter, Americans were far removed from the view of Christmas held by the Puritans, who saw the holiday as a pagan-inspired festival to be loathed and abolished.
What is known about Church suggests he was the curmudgeonly type. No one knows whether he resented being handed what he might have considered a frivolous assignment. But greatness can be found in things thought to be of lesser importance and Church produced poetry and truth in answering Virginia’s concerned query.
We are pleased to reprint this Christmas and journalism classic.
We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
I am 8 years old. 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?
— Virginia O’Hanlon, 115 West Ninety-Fifth Street
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
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. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus? Thank God, he lives, and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.