W. Joseph Campbell

‘Yes, Virginia,’ on CBS: No classic

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

I wrote a year ago about the charmless CBS animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s famous letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s best-known editorial.

The show aired again last night; watching it was headache-inducing.

It utterly lacks the serendipity, anticipation, disappointment, and surprise that characterized the real back story to Virginia’s 1897 letter.

Her appeal to the Sun — “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”–gave rise to an editorial published beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial’s most memorable and most-quoted passage declared:

“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.”

As I noted last year at Media Myth Alert, CBS took great liberties with the back story in offering up a tedious half-hour show that was neither accurate nor entertaining. It’s a distortion of a charming story.

Francis P. Church

The animated Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is depicted–no, misrepresented–as scowling, dismissive, and hard-hearted.

Neither character is convincing. Neither is realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

The CBS show also had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun published the editorial on September 21, 1897 — obscurely, in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in big, sensation-stirring headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

She recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry. Far from being obsessed, little Virginia stopped thinking about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut many years later, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given O’Hanlon’s recollections about waiting and waiting for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work.”

Virginia O'Hanlon

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s prolonged wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had misplaced the letter that inspired a classic editorial, one that would recall the newspaper long after it folded in 1950.

The real back story to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the cheerless, vapid fare that CBS offered up.

Unlike the 1897 editorial, the wretched animated show is destined to be no classic.


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