As the holiday weekend approached, a newspaper friend asked me why, as editor of a community newspaper, I reprinted the editorial “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” on Christmas day every year for 15 years. Usually right there on Page One.
The practical answer: You aren’t looking for the next Pentagon Papers on Christmas Day. I’m lucky if you trudge out to the lawn to pick up the paper or browse away from the Amazon.com returns policies page online.
The philosophical answer: We need things that bring us together – things that, in these divisive times, we can gather around. The newspaper, as daybook for the conversation of our communities, provides routines and traditions. What better tradition than an annual reading of a beloved essay?
The most honest answer: I get goosebumps every time I read “Yes, Virginia.” I soak in its optimism. I love this essay. I want to share it.
And, hey, every once in a while the executive editor gets his way.So I give for your consideration on this Christmas Day one Francis Pharcellus Church, a New York Sun editor and editorial writer at the turning of the 19th century. War correspondent during the Civil War. Son of a Baptist minister and religious skeptic.
You may have run into writers like him. There were a few in every newsroom I ever worked, right down to the preacher’s kid who becomes an atheist. I like these journalists. Well, most of them.
Many – perhaps all – have a secret: They’re closet believers in humankind.
Church’s pen revealed him on a September day in 1897. He was tasked with writing an editorial reply to Virginia O’Hanlon of 115 West 95th Street. Virginia’s letter, in full: “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?”
(I think I would like Papa.)
Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject,” according to one account, “but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk and in a short time produced the classic expression of Christmas sentiment.”
The 121-year-old editorial endures. Parents everywhere know the signature phrase even if they can’t place its source. Church’s reply to an 8-year-old girl’s question has been reprinted and remade into illustrated books, movies and music. It has been translated into more than 20 languages. Jane Pauley of CBS Sunday Morning featured the life of letter writer Virginia O’Hanlon this month. The Owensboro, Kentucky, Messenger-Inquirer reprinted the letter and response. You just missed the Lakewood (Washington) Playhouse’s three-week run of a play named … yes, you guessed it.
For those 15 years we ran “Yes, Virginia” in the Columbia Missourian, I don’t recall a single reader complaint.To update Mr. Church for the 21st century, let us abandon for a moment the cynicism of a cynical age. Let us fight back the bilge water of lying bots and false prophets. Let us dare wet a line in the pristine, unspoiled streams of assurance, hope and — may I say it? — faith.
Church makes those aspirations concrete in the form of Mr. 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!”
Church plays to two audiences, child and adult, like the wink of a Bugs Bunny witticism. I laugh every time I read: “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies.”
A good high school debate team could make quick work of Church’s logic. That’s not the point. Ideals don’t come neatly packaged. In not trying to tie a bow, Church makes magic.After the question that prompted this reflection, I called another friend who still works at the Missourian. I’m happy to report that the new editor plans to reprint “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” again this year.
This is the opening of the “Yes, Virginia” letter as it first appeared in the New York Sun in 1897. Below that is the full text of the letter.
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 [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 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.