W. Joseph Campbell

Virginia’s descendants: ‘Ambassadors of Christmas spirit’

In 1897, Debunking, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

The New York Times carried a fine article Christmas Day about how descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon “have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit,” offering ties to the girl who long ago inspired American journalism’s best-known editorial.

Young Virginia O'Hanlon (Courtesy Jim Temple)

Virginia’s letter to the old New York Sun in 1897 gave rise to the essay, “Is There A Santa Claus?” No other editorial has been as often recalled or reprinted as that tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit.

Her letter implored: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The editorial written in reply declares in its most memorable and familiar passage:

“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.”

The Times article yesterday wasn’t much overstating matters in observing that Virginia, who died in 1971, “has become as much a symbol of Christmas as Ebenezer Scrooge or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

The heart of the article described how Virginia’s descendants “have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to appear at events honoring her, and reading the letter and the response to children in schools and to their own children at home. … Come December, their names and faces turn up in newspapers and on television programs around the world, as well as in the company newsletters of their various workplaces.”

I became acquainted with the hospitality of some of Virginia’s descendants while researching my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, and know first-hand how helpful and accommodating they can be.

They are by no means pushy or mercenary in keeping alive the memory of Virginia O’Hanlon.

Jim Temple, Virginia’s only grandson, is perhaps the family’s point person in responding to requests for information.

In 2005, Temple welcomed me to his home in upstate New York where he and I reviewed the contents of a large cardboard box in which he kept newspaper clippings, photographs, and other totems about Virginia.

He was generous with his time, recollections, and artifacts.

My visit allowed me to unravel a small but persistent mystery about “Is There A Santa Claus?” That was why a Christmastime editorial had been published in late summer.

The essay (which the Sun in 1906 revealed had been written by a veteran and childless journalist named Francis P. Church) appeared on September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials.

In Temple’s box of memorabilia was clipping of a Connecticut newspaper article that had been published in December 1959. The article–a key to resolving the question of the editorial’s odd timing–described Virginia O’Hanlon’s talk to a high school audience in Fall River, Connecticut.

She was quoted as having said:

“After writing to the Sun, I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Virginia’s letter, after arriving at the Sun, probably was overlooked or misplaced for an extended period. “That there was such a gap seems certain, given both O’Hanlon’s recollections about having waited for a reply and the accounts that say Church wrote the famous editorial in ‘a short time,'” I pointed out.

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun had misplaced the little girl’s letter.

That means Virginia wrote her letter to the Sun well before September 1897.

The 1959 newspaper article also quoted Virginia as saying:

“My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me. I think I was a brat.”

Thus, as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the most plausible explanation for the editorial’s odd timing “lies in the excited speculation of a little girl who, after celebrating her birthday in mid-summer, began to wonder about the gifts she would receive at Christmas.”

The “excited speculation” gave rise to Virginia’s letter to the Sun.


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