Every year around Christmas, the American-Statesman looks back on a beloved holiday tradition — the sharing of the most-reprinted letter to the editor in American journalism history. It is our hope that republishing the letter will remind us all of innocence, hope and magic.
Penned in September 1897 by Virginia O’Hanlon, an 8-year-old girl who was curious about the existence of Santa Claus, the letter was assigned for reply to editorial writer Frank Church of Manhattan’s long-since defunct New York Sun daily newspaper.
His simple and short response appeared just as literary authors like Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast — along with some clever marketers — gave the world a new version of Saint Nick and Father Christmas. That version — of a fat, jolly, gentle man in a red suit — is how most children of all ages still identify with Santa today.
A veteran newsman who had covered the Civil War for The New York Times, Church had a reputation for being a grump. He wasn’t crazy about the assignment, but his response became what is arguably the world’s most famous letter to the editor. Its reprinting became a Christmas tradition and the phrase “Yes, Virginia” became a fixture of the American lexicon, a shorthand way of saying “but of course.”
In 2005, American University’s William Campbell wrote a study of the letter and the lessons its holds for us today. In it, he includes a 1997 quote by Eric Newton, then of the Freedom Forum’s Newseum, who said “Newspapers today need Church’s poetry on their editorial pages.”
Editorials can’t all be about Trump and mass shootings. Or secret city manager searches and missteps by school district superintendents. Editorials should also be about love, hope, faith and humanity. Church taught us as much.
We are pleased to offer this special remembrance of a Christmas past:
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.