W. Joseph Campbell

Getting it right about a legendary newspaper editorial

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes on December 21, 2020 at 6:54 pm

The timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit, published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, long ago became the single best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism.

It also is a myth-distorted artifact, as suggested by errant media descriptions and characterizations over the years.

Such descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title and erred about its derivation. (Surely it cannot be churlish to expect news outlets to get it right about a legendary commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.)

Is There_NYSunThe editorial (see image nearby) was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” (as a commentary several years ago in the Tampa Bay Times maintained; that commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out”).

The phrase, “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the 1897 editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“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.”

The editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years afterward, recalled the excited speculation that led her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897 — as is often assumed — but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is likely that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, at the Sun for an extended period. In any case, the Sun did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as is sometimes claimed.

We know this because Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

It is sometimes said the editorial was an instant sensation and as such was reprinted yearly by the Sun. Neither claim is quite accurate.

Despite its odd timing, the editorial prompted no comment or response from rival newspapers in New York — at a time when newspapers were eager to point to the flaws, deficiencies, and misjudgments of peer publications.

And the Sun’s embrace of “Is There A Santa Claus?” was diffident, reluctant, and unenthusiastic. Not until the 1920s did the Sun routinely republish the editorial at Christmastime — a move that represented a triumph for the newspaper’s readers who, as I wrote in The Year that Defined American Journalism, frequently over the years had called for the editorial to be reprinted.

In the ten years that followed its initial publication, the Sun republished “Is There A Santa Claus?” at Christmastime only twice.

The first time was in 1902. On that occasion, the Sun reprinted the editorial with more than a hint of annoyance, stating:

“Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.” The newspaper added this gratuitous swipe:

“Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

The Sun next reprinted the editorial in December 1906, as a tribute to Church, who had died eight months before.

The Sun said then it was reprinting the editorial “at the request of many friends of the Sun, of Santa Claus, of the little Virginias of yesterday and to-day, and of the author of the essay, the late F.P. Church.”

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”

But it probably was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun soon after his death, in an editorial tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

Virginia O’Hanlon grew up to a teacher and a principal. She married unhappily but kept her husband’s surname, had one daughter, and lived till 1971. Her death in upstate New York at age 81 was reported on the front page of the New York Times.

So why, after more than 120 years, does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon lives on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis?

Here are some reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming; it also is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past, a time before the internet, social media, television, and even radio or manned flight; it is reassuring, somehow, to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers an evocative reminder to adults about Christmases past, about the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven to be a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

This post is an expanded version of an essay published at Media Myth Alert in December 2013.

WJC

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