In 1897, and eight year old little girl named Virginia, wrote a letter asking “Is there a Santa Claus?” The famous reply was an editorial known as “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” dated Tuesday September 21, 1897 which has become an indelible part of popular Christmas folklore in the United States. Now WE know em

Virginia O'Hanlon (circa 1895)

Virginia O’Hanlon (circa 1895)

Laura “Virginia” O’Hanlon was born on July 20, 1889, in the upper west side of New York City.

In 1897 eight year old Virginia asked her father, coroner assistant Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, whether Santa Claus really existed.

Her father suggested she write and ask her question about Santa Claus to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”

Together, they mailed the letter:

 “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.”

 

Photo of Virginia’s original letter

Photo of Virginia’s original letter

Virginia’s letter was routed to Francis Pharcellus Church, a lead editorial writer on his brother’s newspaper, The New York Sun.

Francis Pharcellus Church, author of the famous editorial

Francis Pharcellus Church, author of the famous editorial

Francis Pharcellus Church was born in Rochester, New York and graduated from Columbia College of Columbia University in 1859.

He had been a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time that saw great suffering and a corresponding lack of hope and faith in much of society.

Francis responded with an editorial he titled, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

In his reply, he answered the young girl’s question stating that Santa Claus definitely exists.

 

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?

 “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 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.

 

The message was very moving to the many people who read it, including Virginia O’Hanlon.

This turned out to be Franics Church’s most famous editorial, even though it ran in the seventh place on the page, below even one on the newly invented “chainless bicycle.”

In an interview later in life, Virginia credited the editorial with shaping the direction of her life quite positively.

Virginia eventually gave the original letter to a granddaughter, who pasted it in a scrapbook.

Then it was feared that the letter was destroyed in a house fire.

Virginia died on May 13, 1971, in a nursing home in Valatie, New York.

She is buried at the Chatham Rural Cemetery in North Chatham, New York.

More than a century later, her letter remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

Now WE know em

Legacy

The story of Virginia’s inquiry and the response was adapted in 1932 into an NBC produced cantata (the only known editorial set to classical music).

September 21st of every year, Virginia’s letter and Church’s response are read at the Yule Log ceremony at Church’s alma mater, Columbia College of Columbia University.

In New York City, local television journalist Gabe Pressman has recounted the story each Christmas for the past thirty years.

In 1971, after seeing Virginia’s obituary in The New York Times, four friends formed a company, called Elizabeth Press, and published a children’s book titled Yes, Virginia that illustrated the editorial and included a brief history of the main characters. Its creators took it to Warner Brothers who eventually made the Emmy award-winning television show based on the editorial. The History Channel, in a special that aired on February 21, 2001, noted that Virginia gave the original letter to a granddaughter, who pasted it in a scrapbook. It was feared that the letter was destroyed in a house fire, but 30 years later, it was discovered intact.

In 1974, the letter inspired an Emmy Award-winning animated television special animated by Bill Meléndez (best known for his work on the various Peanuts specials) and featured the voices of Jim Backus, Susan Silo and Courtney Lemmon, with the theme song performed by Jimmy Osmond.

The last two paragraphs of Church’s editorial are read by actor Sam Elliot in the 1989 film Prancer, about Jessica Riggs, a little girl who believes the wounded reindeer she is nursing back to health belongs to Santa. Jessica’s story inspires the local newspaper editor, as Virginia’s letter did to Church, to write an editorial which he titles Yes, Santa, there are still Virginias.

In 1991, the letter was adapted into a made-for-TV movie with Richard Thomas and Charles Bronson.

In 1996, the story of Virginia’s inquiry and the response was adapted into a holiday musical “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” by David Kirchenbaum (music and lyrics) and Myles McDonnel (book).

On September 21, 1997, the exact 100th anniversary of the original publication of the editorial, The New York Times published an analysis of its enduring appeal.

The original letter was authenticated in 1998 by Kathleen Guzman, an appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow, and appraised at between $20,000–$30,000.

In 2003 “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” was depicted in a mechanical holiday window display at the Lord & Taylor department store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Macy’s, in partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, launched its first Believe campaign in 2008, based on “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. The 2008 Believe campaign results included Macy’s collecting 1.1 million letters from Santa Mail Red Letter boxes located in Macy’s stores, that were then mailed to him through the United States Post Office “Operation Santa”, and Macy’s making a matching $ 1 million US contribution to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the letters collected by Macy’s.

The 2008 Macy’s Believe holiday commercial featured Jessica Simpson, Donald Trump, Martha Stewart and others quoting various popular lines from “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The opening lines appeared again in the 2009 Believe holiday commercial featuring Queen Latifah.

In 2009, The Studio School in New York City, honored Virginia’s life and legacy. Janet C. Rotter, Head of School, announced the establishment of the Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship, speaking passionately about their commitment to offering need-based scholarships for students of merit.

Also in 2009, Macy’s and Macy’s ad agency JWT produced Yes, Virginia, a CGI animated Christmas special, after pitching and selling the idea to CBS. Yes, Virginia is a fictionalized version of her story. The film was directed by Pete Circuitt and animated by Starz Animation, makers of Shane Acker’s 9. It features the voice talents of Beatrice Miller as Virginia, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Neil Patrick Harris and Alfred Molina.

Since 2009, CBS has been the U.S. TV network broadcaster of Yes, Virginia.

For the Macy’s 2010 Believe campaign, an animated character based on Virginia was part of and appeared in their 2010 holiday commercials, inviting children to stores to write “Yes Virginia Santa Letters,” and at the Macy’s department store on 34th and Broadway in Manhattan as the theme for its 2010 holiday windows. She was also represented as a balloon in the 2010 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

A 2012 recording by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and conductor John Morris Russell, entitled Home for the Holidays, features a dramatic reading of Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter and Church’s editorial response, with voice over performances by Alma Russell (the conductor’s daughter) and well-known Broadway veteran Brian Stokes Mitchell. The narration is underscored by the orchestra performing Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from Enigma Variations.

Yes, Virginia is the name of a Dresden Dolls album, followed by No, Virginia. The phrase is also mentioned in a song off the former album, “Mrs. O.”

 

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