On September 21, 1897, the following appeared as an editorial in the New York Sun (bold emphasis mine):
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
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.
The message was immediately noticed by readers, and became enduringly popular, becoming the most reprinted English-language editorial in history. It has since been adapted into various movies and songs, an Emmy-winning 1974 TV special animated by Peanuts veteran Bill Melendez, a 2010 TV special starring Neil Patrick Harris, and a 1932 cantata (making it, as Wikipedia points out, “the only known editorial set to classical music”).
The response was penned by Francis Pharcellus Church, a war correspondent whose time covering the Civil War had left him jaded and cynical. The Yes Virginia response, with its hopeful outlook, is thus atypical for him, and according to Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story, he initially refused to have his name associated with it. The Sun named him as the piece’s author after Church’s death in 1906.
On the 100th anniversary of the editorial’s first appearance, the New York Times ran an essay discussing why the message had endured as long as it had. According to William David Sloan, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas:
Had he denied Santa Claus, he might have torn down the fanciful world of many youngsters and tampered with the values and traditions many people consider important. Had he affirmed Santa Claus matter-of-factly, he would have contributed no ideas of lasting significance. What Church did was sustain a child’s hope while giving her a statement of ideals that are worthwhile for the adult. He did not simply continue a myth. He gave a reason for believing.
Laura Virginia O’Halloran earned her doctorate from Fordham University, and served as an educator from 1912 to her retirement in 1959. She received letters about the editorial throughout her life; her replies always included a copy of the original document. In an interview late in life, she said of the response to her letter, “The older I grow, the more I realize what a perfect philosophy it is for life.”
Ms. O’Halloran died at the age of 81 in a nursing home in Valatie, New York, and is buried in the Chatham Rural Cemetery in North Chatham, New York.
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