From The People's Almanac, pp. 1358-9.
Francis P. Church's editorial, "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa
Claus," was an immediate sensation, and became one of the most famous
editorials ever written. It first appeared in The New York Sun in
1897, almost 100 years ago, and was reprinted annually until 1949,
when the paper went out of business.
Thirty-six years after her letter was printed, Virginia O'Hanlon
recalled the events that prompted her letter:
"Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never
disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said
there wasn't any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my
father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.
"It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as
to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in
doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in The Sun. Father
would always say, 'If you see it in The Sun, it's so,' and that
settled the matter.
" 'Well, I'm just going to write The Sun and find out the real
truth,' I said to father.
"He said, 'Go ahead, Virginia. I'm sure The Sun will give you the
right answer, as it always does.' "
And so Virginia sat down and wrote her parents' favorite
Her letter found its way into the hands of a veteran editor,
Francis Pharcellus Church, who was born in Rochester, N.Y., on Feb.
22, 1839, the son of a Baptist minister. He had covered the Civil War
for The New York Times and had worked at The New York Sun for 20
years, most recently as an anonymous editorial writer.
Church, a sardonic man, had for his personal motto "Endeavor to
clear your mind of cant." When controversial subjects had to be
tackled on the editorial page, especially those dealing with
theology, the assignments were usually given to Church.
Now, he had in his hands a little girl's letter on a most
controversial matter, and he was burdened with the responsibility of
"Is there a Santa Claus?" the childish scrawl in the letter asked.
At once, Church knew that there was no avoiding the question. He must
answer, and he must answer truthfully. And so he turned to his desk
and began his reply, which was to become one of the most memorable
editorials in newspaper history.
Church married shortly after the editorial appeared. He died in
April 1906, leaving no children. Virginia O'Hanlon went on to
graduate from Hunter College with a bachelor of arts degree at age
21. The following year, she received her master's from Columbia, and
in 1912 she began teaching in the New York City school system, later
becoming a principal. After 47 years, she retired as an educator.
Throughout her life she received a steady stream of mail about her
Santa Claus letter, and to each reply she attached an attractive
printed copy of the Church editorial.
Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81,
in a nursing home in Valatie, N.Y.