Editor's note: This is a reprint of this column.
More than a hundred years ago, an 8-year-old girl wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun: "Please tell me the truth: is there a Santa Claus?" The answer - "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" - is the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time, a classic appearing in dozens of languages, in editorials, books and movies, on posters and stamps, even in the Old Farmer's Almanac.
What makes it endure? Is it because "Yes, Virginia" perpetuates the best traditions of Christmas? Because it touches on the connection between parents and children? Because it makes us long for the days of the great American newspaper? Or is it something more?
The author, Sun editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church, grumbled a bit when handed the little girl' s letter. "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus," wrote Virginia O'Hanlon. "Please tell me the truth ..." Something in the innocent query touched the veteran newsman. Church quickly turned in a 500-word reply, printed on Sept. 21, 1897, on page six, with no byline.
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," Church wrote. "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." The editorial was destined to live on, far beyond Church's death in 1906; The Sun's, in 1950, and even Mrs. Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas' in 1971.
By its 100th anniversary, Church' s gift of words turned into a Christmas treasure for some 200 greeting card companies.
"You couldn't stop it if you wanted to," says Richard Church Thompson, a relative of the writer. "It' s about a time when America was beginning to define its Christmas, a Victorian Christmas."
Howell Raines, former editor of the editorial page of The New York Times, says the story speaks about generations: "What this child is doing is knocking on the door of the adult world and asking to be let in ... and what this editor is doing is protecting her - and his adult readers."
Crusty newspaper editors have a particularly soft spot for "Yes, Virginia." The editorial evokes a time when newspapers were the most trusted news medium, when the great American editorial really was the great American editorial. As Virginia put it in her letter: "Papa says 'if you see it in the Sun it's so.' " But there is more. Church didn't just spin another yarn about Santa Claus, notes historian William David Sloan. "He gave us a reason for believing."
"Yes, Virginia" is not merely 100-plus years old; it's as old as people. It's not just about a girl in New York; it's about children everywhere, and grown-ups big enough to remember. It's not even about Santa; substitute the symbol of your choice. "Yes, Virginia" is about faith, about believing in things you can't see, about wonder, joy and love.
Santa today is under attack. He's too commercial, too European, too Christian, too fat, even. But whether you like him or not, let him live. Francis Pharcellus Church did, and we're toasting him 100 years later. Virginia did, and she grew up to be an educator in New York to teach countless disabled children about Christmas, newspapers, families, faith.
"No Santa Claus!" wrote Church. "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."
Eric Newton is the former managing editor of the Newseum, the world's first museum of news, in Arlington, Va.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21,1897.
Is There a Santa Claus?
We take pleasure in answering at once and 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:
"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?
"115 WEST NINETY FIFTH STREET."
VIRGINlA, 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 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.