This Day in History: September 21st- There is a Santa Claus

This Day In History: September 21, 1897

santa-clauseArguably one of the most famous editorials ever written (still the record holder for the most reprinted English newspaper editorial of all time) was published on September 21, 1897 in the New York Sun. It didn’t address matters of importance in the city, in the country, or even in the world at large. The editorial simply assured a worried eight-year-old child that Santa Claus was indeed real, no matter what her classmates told her.

In September of 1897, a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon was deeply troubled. Some of her school friends insisted that Santa Claus didn’t exist. When she went to her father, Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, with her concerns he suggested she write to the Sun, as the family often did.

So she wrote a letter, determined to find out the truth.

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

Virginia_O'Hanlon_(ca._1895)This letter ended up on the desk of veteran Sun writer Francis P. Church, who had worked for the paper for over twenty years. Allegedly Church “bristled and pooh-poohed” when his editor handed him Virginia’s letter asking him to compose a reply. And yet, he produced a masterpiece that became a beloved holiday touchstone – by his deadline and in under 500 words.

The editorial, which was eventually republished in 20 different languages, certainly hit home with young Virginia and her parents. Virginia recalled during a 1914 interview that,

It used to make me as proud as a peacock to go along in the street in the neighborhood and hear somebody say, ‘Oh, look. There’s Virginia O’Hanlon. Did you see that editorial the New York Sun had about her?’ And father and mother were even prouder than I, I think. They still show the editorial to callers and just talk people’s arms off about it.

She also remembered her father Dr. O’Hanlon coming home the morning of the editorial’s publication laden down with copies of the paper. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.”

The editorial’s message still resonates just as strongly over a century later:

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. – “Is There a Santa Claus?” September 21, 1897, The New York Sun.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Francis P. Church, who authored the article anonymously, died in April of 1906. Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas was an educator for 47 years and died in May of 1971 at the age of 81.
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