Newspaper history: “Yes, Virginia,” the most popular editorial ever vouches for Santa Claus


“Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.'”

Do we stand as witnesses to the end of newspapers in America?

It’s been a grand history.  Newspapering gave us great leaders like Benjamin Franklin.  Newspapering gave us wars, like the Spanish-American War.  Newspapering gave us Charlie Brown, Ann Landers, the Yellow Kid, Jim Murray, Red Smith, Thomas Nast (and Santa Claus), the Federalist Papers, and coupons to save money on laundry soap.

It’s been a curious history, too.  An 1897 editorial vouching for Santa Claus rates as the most popular editorial of all time, according to the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Francis Pharcellus Church, New York Sun writer who wrote "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" - Newseum

The man who saved Christmas, at least for Virginia O'Hanlon: Francis Pharcellus Church - Newseum image

In autumn, 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon of 115 West 59th Street in New York, wrote to the New York Sun with this simple question:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

In the age of Yellow Journalism, the fiercely competitive Sun‘s editors turned the letter to Francis Pharcellus.  He responded to little Virginia on September 21, 1897:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Church’s brother, William Conant Church, owned and published the newspaper.  Both had followed their father into the news business.  They co-founded The Army-Navy Journal in 1863, and went on to a series of journalistic collaborations.  Francis was 58 years old when he answered Virginia’s letter. (He died at age 67, in 1906.)

The New York Sun held down the conservative corner in New York journalism at the time, versus the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune.  But it also had an interesting history, to a blogger intrigued by hoaxes.  In 1835 the paper published a series of six newspaper stories falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, a well-known astronomer, claiming to describe a civilization on the Moon — the Great Moon Hoax.  The discovery was credited to a new, very powerful telescope.

In 1844 the paper published a hoax written by Edgar Allen Poe, the Balloon Hoax.  Under a pseudonym, Poe wrote that a gas balloon had crossed the Atlantic in three days.

The Sun also featured outstanding reporting.  A 1947 and 1948  series about crime on the docks of New York City won a Pulitzer Prize for writer Malcolm Johnson.  That series inspired Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.

The New York Sun ceased publication in 1950.

For all of its history, the Sun and the Churches are most remembered for that defense of belief in Santa Claus.
Virginia O’Hanlon grew up, graduated from Hunter College, got a masters at Columbia, and earned a Ph.D. from Fordham.  She taught in the New York City Public School system, from which she retired in 1959.  She died in 1971.

Birth of tradition

Columbia University was Church’s alma mater, as well as O’Hanlon’s.  Her letter and his response get a reading each year at the Yule Log Ceremony at Columbia College, along with the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”  Animated, live-acting, and other television productions have been mounted in 1974, 1991, and 2009.


Is there a Santa Claus?  Did Church write a credible defense? The text of the letter and answer, below the fold.

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From the Newseum, the text of Virginia’s letter, and Francis Pharcellus Church’s answer:

DEAR EDITOR: 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 [what] 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 eternal 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 they 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 may 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, fancy, 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 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.

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4 Responses to Newspaper history: “Yes, Virginia,” the most popular editorial ever vouches for Santa Claus

  1. bigls says:

    Let me say only this:

    If newspapers continued to publish such articles as that of Church, written by authors who are true writers in every aspect of the word, and printed by newspapers who did not outsource their articles to people who post a picture of Jimmy Buffet for Warren Buffet, the newspaper industry would not have reached the crisis it has reached.

    What is the difference between a printed, respectable newspaper that does such things and an online source that does the same? Very little, except that one is paid for and one is not, and that people will ultimately go with the cheapest source if it is comparable in quality.

    Bless Church, and the newspapers / newspapermen/women of the past! If only such a thing were still available, the beauty and truth of the newspaper would live on still.

    Like

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    What do I really think? I think most newspapers have missed something. I like a paper, on paper — though I use a lot of on-line sources.

    Your observation about lack of imagination on business models is right.

    But there is also a culture shift, away from intellectual pursuit, away from the old American dream of the kids getting better education than the parents and moving up a few rungs on the social and economic ladders.

    I’m pessimistic about someone finding a model soon enough to save investigative and explicatory reporting, which is a major benefit of newspapers to democracy. We will be left without the access to science, politics, and social news we need to make our democratic republic work.

    I hope I’m wrong.

    Like

  3. What do you think? Do you believe this era will see the end of newspapers?

    Certainly the concept of receiving one’s news on paper is facing a slow death, but I’m optimistic about newspapers’ online incarnations. Few websites are more effective at drawing users. I think the main problem has been a lack of imagination in the business model. As we’ve seen, papers’ focus on transplanting the subscription fee (WSJ) and online advertising has been less than successful.

    Instead, newspapers should realize that their ability to draw large numbers of diverse audiences focused on different topic areas makes them the ideal hub for software distribution and data collection. A paper with a strong following for their business section should be selling business software. A paper that can collect data using polls and decision scenarios has valuable data to license to companies. Gaming, social networking, and many other areas present opportunities as well.

    Certainly, these kinds of business activities do not pose any more or less of an ethical challenge to papers than selling advertising to businesses that they may need to cover. The newspaper sites have mostly not tried these ideas and, when they have, just haven’t executed well. But I’m optimistic because they are still extremely successful at driving a large audience, so at some point, some paper will realize that it can become its city’s Facebook or Dunn & Bradstreet, and hire talented people from Silicon Valley or elsewhere who can make this happen.

    Like

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