W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘‘Is There A Santa Claus?’’

Saturday at Newseum: Telling the back story to ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I’ll be discussing American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial at a program tomorrow afternoon at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

The editorial is, of course, the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit that ran 113 years ago in the old New York Sun beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

I’ll be speaking about the back story to the classic editorial at 3:30 p.m. in the Newseum’s Knight studio, near the close of what is billed as “‘Yes, Virginia,’ Family Day.” The essay often is referred to as “Yes, Virginia,” owing to its most famous passage–“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

As I note in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial was rather obscure and inconspicuous in its first appearance.  “Is There A Santa Claus?” was published in the third of three columns of tightly packed commentaries on topics that ranged from the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law to the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

The editorial’s timing was odd and incongruous, too. “Is There A Santa Claus?” first appeared in the Sun on September 21, 1897–more than three months before Christmas.

As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the best explanation for the puzzling 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 little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon who, in her excited speculation, wrote to the Sun, saying:

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

As she recalled years later, the letter was sent soon after her 8th birthday in July 1897. But the editorial reply in the Sun didn’t appear until more than two months had passed.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in 1959, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Apparently, the Sun had misplaced or overlooked her letter. It eventually turned up on the desk of Edward P. Mitchell, the editorial page editor, who asked Francis P. Church to craft a reply.

Years later, Mitchell wrote that Church, a retiring, taciturn journalist, “bristled and pooh-poohed” at the request but finally “took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.

It took Church less than a day to draft the editorial that would ensure him enduring posthumous fame. (His authorship wasn’t disclosed by the Sun until shortly after his death in 1906.)

“Virginia,” Church wrote in the editorial, “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.”

After ruminating about the dimensions of human imagination, Church opened a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most memorable passages:

“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.”

It sometimes is claimed that “Is There A Santa Claus?” was an instant sensation. In fact, it attracted no immediate attention. As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York City.”

But “readers noted it and found it memorable,” I add. “In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.” While it took years, the newspaper grudgingly acquiesced.

From 1924 until the newspaper’s last Christmas before folding in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

“Ultimately,” I note, “the newspaper gave in—tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”

WJC

Recent and related:

Editorial writers and ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ What they say today

In 1897, New York Sun on December 25, 2009 at 3:45 pm

New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Word of Mouth” program yesterday aired a quite interesting segment about what editorial writers say these days about the most famous editorial in American journalism, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

It made for thoughtful listening.

And that’s not just because the producer, Avishay Artsy, included some of my observations.

Virginia O'Hanlon

The famous editorial was written in 1897 by Francis P. Church of the New York Sun. The editorial was prompted by a letter from Virginia O’Hanlon, an eight-year-old New York City girl who implored the Sun:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

In time, Church’s editorial — which included the memorable (if now cliched) passage, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — became an unrivaled classic in American journalism.

As I pointed out in the “Word of Mouth” segment, the editorial “is very cerebral, almost written above the head of an eight year old. But it’s also written in a fashion that he, Francis P. Church, the author, was not condescending. He’s not talking down to her, and that was a real trick he pulled off there.”

Church’s editorial invoked a romanticism seldom found in newspaper editorials, the “Word of Mouth” segment noted in quoting Drew Cline, editorial page editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Church, Cline said, “takes such a unique approach in connecting the unseen world, the world of fantasy and romance to her regular life. And I just thought that was so beautiful. But I just don’t think you could see anything like that today. I just think that connection with the romantic idealism of that era is so far gone at this point.”

Cline also noted that these days, an eight-year-old surely not write to a newspaper but instead “would go to her parents’ computer and Google ‘Santa, real,’ and see what comes up.”

Ron Dzonkowski at the Detroit Free Press suggested that questions about Santa’s existence may be especially pressing to children in Michigan this Christmas, given the state’s beleaguered economy.

“We have by far the worst economy in the nation, the auto industry is in the middle of an enormous shakeout,” Dzonkowski said on “Word of Mouth.”

“We will have lost one million jobs in this state in the decade from 2001 to 2010. And so I suspect that there already are a number of young children in this state that already have been told by their parents, ‘don’t expect too much from Santa Claus this year.’ And so that may have planted the question in their minds, is there really a Santa Claus?”

Peter Cannelos of the Boston Globe said Church’s editorial remains relevant in another respect.

The essay signals, Cannelos said, “what we as newspapers should do and what can be a real lynchpin of our survival and our redefinition of our mission going forward. And that is we should speak to the community in a way that reflects broad recognition of the community values, and speak for people who don’t have a voice.”

Well, maybe.

But rather than speaking for people who lack a voice, Church more likely was guided by the view, current in the 1890s, that editorials should strive for boldness. “Better no editorials than dreary ones,” a journalists’ trade publication had advised in 1894. “Audacity is a necessary feature of every good editorial.”

Audacity certainly characterized “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial was published September 21, 1897, more than three months before Christmas.

Perhaps most striking is how generations  of readers have found solace, joy, and inspiration in the editorial’s passages.

“Though I am getting old,” said a letter-writer to the Sun in 1914, the editorial’s “thoughts and expressions fill my heart with overflowing joy.”

A letter-writer said in 1926 that the editorial offered “a fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

And in 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the editorial to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

Merry Christmas.

WJC

Recalling Francis P. Church: No self-promoting author, he

In 1897, New York Sun on December 24, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Christmas Eve certainly is a fitting moment to recall Francis P. Church, one of the few editorial writers whose name is to known to generations of Americans.

Church of the Sun (Courtesy Century Club)

Church wrote the most-reprinted editorial in American journalism, “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial appeared in the New York Sun in 1897, and over time became recognized as an unrivaled classic, a timeless and lyrical tribute to childhood, faith, and the Christmas spirit.

Church, ironically, was a reticent, retiring man, little known outside a tight circle of friends and colleagues.

He was no self-promoter.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Church shunned the spotlight and venerated the anonymity of the editorial page. He probably wouldn’t have appreciated being identified as the man who wrote “Is There A Santa Claus?”

His authorship was revealed soon after his death in April 1906, in what, for the Sun, was eloquent and extraordinary tribute. In an editorial note, the newspaper said:

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us, 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.”

The little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon, who wrote to the Sun shortly after her eighth birthday in July 1897, imploring: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The task of writing a reply fell to Church, who then was 58-years-old. He and his wife never had children.

Church was said to have taken on the assignment grudgingly.

Edward P. Mitchell, the Sun’s editorial page editor, recalled in his book 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” to write.

Church quickly produced a 500-word reply, without a hint that his editorial would become a classic, and would ensure him a measure of enduring and posthumous fame.

“Virginia,” Church wrote, “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.”

After ruminating a little about the limitations and narrow dimensions of human imagination, Church began a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most lasting and memorable lines:

“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.”

Church closed the editorial with this reassurance:

“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 editorial that became an unrivaled classic in American journalism was essentially buried in its first appearance: It was published in the third of three legs (or columns) of editorials on September 21, 1897.

“Is There A Santa Claus?” was subordinate that day to seven other commentaries, which discussed matters such as “British Ships in American Waters,” ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law, and features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial about Santa Claus prompted no comment from the Sun’s competitor newspapers in New York City.

But readers noted it, and found it memorable. In untold numbers over the years, they urged the Sun to reprint the essay.

Requests often came from parents of young children, such as the letter-writer in 1918 whom the Sun identified only as D.F.C.:

“I am an old time reader of the Sun and have a little girl, Anna, who seemingly is doubtful about there being a ‘Santa Claus.’ I have told her that if she looks in the Sun on Christmas morning she will be convinced by reading the famous reply of one of your staff writers to little Virginia O’Hanlon, which I have oftentimes read with much pleasure. Please do not fail to reprint it in your coming Christmas number.”

It is unlikely Church would have been much pleased by the Sun’s disclosing his authorship.

He was a guarded, reticent man who respected and even cultivated, the anonymity of editorial-writing. Church spent more than thirty years writing editorials for the Sun. He joined the newspaper fulltime in 1878 after the demise of Galaxy, a literary magazine he established with his brother.

According to J.R. Duryee, a friend whose testimonial the Sun published in April 1906, “Mr. Church by nature and training was reticent about himself, highly sensitive and retiring. Even with intimates he rarely permitted himself to express freely his inner thought.

“I doubt if an editor was ever more consistently loyal in maintaining the privacy of the sources of his journal’s statements,” Duryee wrote. “In our talks together, I have frequently referred to an editorial my intuition told me was from his pen, but never could induce him to own the writing. … I have never known a literary man as ingenuous as he in his self-repression.”

In what he presumed to have been Church’s work, Duryee said he found the imprint of “gentle humor” and “a simple, chaste style.”

His work in “a lighter vein,” Duryee wrote, possessed “rare charm” and was notable in its delicacy of touch.

Duryee did not say so, specifically, but he could well have been referring to “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Merry Christmas.

WJC

Adapting ‘Yes, Virginia’: Interestingly done

In 1897, New York Sun on December 23, 2009 at 11:13 am

The editorial “Is There A Santa Claus?” is inarguably the most famous in American journalism.

It was published September 21, 1897, in the New York Sun, in response to the query of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. She had written to the newspaper shortly after her eighth birthday, asking:

“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?”

The editorial written in reply reassured the little girl and included these memorable passages:

Virginia O'Hanlon

“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.”

Over the years, the phrase “Yes, Virginia,” has become a cliche, invoked in contexts of all kinds, most of them unrelated to the editorial, Christmastime, and American journalism.

The editorial has become the centerpiece of a number of enduring myths. And it has inspired no small amount of imitation, some of it flip, most of it utterly forgettable.

A notable exception, though, was the “Yes, Virginia,” adaptation posted last week by technology writer Michael S. Malone at his “Silicon Insider”  column at ABCNews.com.

Malone’s takeoff was amusing, even ingenious. He pitched the column as a  reply to a 21st century Virginia O’Hanlon, who had written to ABCNews.com, asking:

“Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus. My dad says, ‘If you read it on the Web, it must be so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

In a reply embedded with knowing references to iphones, quarks, and Facebook, Malone wrote:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. I know if you surf the Web you’ll be linked to more web pages and blogs that suggest that he is just a myth or worse, a joke than that he is real. Saddest of all are those sites that argue that Santa Claus is impossible, that reindeer can’t fly or that no one could visit so many homes in a single night. These last stories are written by confused adults who don’t believe in miracles and want to force children to think as they do. They call it ‘being realistic.’ …

“Oh, Virginia, there are so many miracles. Think of that computer chip in your Wii or iPhone that goes through as many thoughts in a second as you will have heartbeats in your entire life. Or of those thousands of people in the world now who carry around transplanted hearts and livers and lungs. Or those amazing rovers that explored the surface of Mars. Even that H1N1 flu shot you just got. These are miracles, Virginia, every one of them. …

“Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in Facebook, or electrons, or black holes. Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that doesn’t mean there is no Santa Claus. No one has seen a quark either, or a computer bit, but that’s no proof they aren’t there. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor adults can see. Great new discoveries and wonderful acts of human kindness are made every day. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders that are unseen or unseeable in this world. …

“No Santa Claus? Of course there is. He has been with us now for a thousand years. As long as little boys and girls like you believe in miracles, Santa Claus will gladden the heart of childhood. And he will live forever.”

Malone’s column may not be quite as stirring, evocative, or cerebral as the Sun‘s 1897 original. But it’s an althogether imaginative, accessible, and even wry adaptation.

And it’s well worth a second read.

WJC

More myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun on December 20, 2009 at 2:13 pm

A couple of tenacious myths associated with American journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?,” made another appearance today.

The West Milford Messenger in New Jersey reprinted the editorial in its entirety and then added a few observations, which are in error.

The newspaper said the editorial, which first appeared in the the New York Sun of September 21, 1897, “was an immediate sensation” and “was reprinted annually until 1949 when the paper went out of business.”

The New York Sun

Well, no, not really.

The editorial wasn’t “an immediate sensation.” Nor was it reprinted annually by the Sun, which ceased publication in 1950. Those mistakes are often enough associated with “Is There A Santa Claus?,” though.

As described in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial stirred no comment by other newspapers at the time. And in 1897, the New York City press routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals.

But the oddly timed editorial that contained the passage, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York.

Moreover, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was diffidently embraced by the Sun.

In the ten years from 1898–1907, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was reprinted in the Sun 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.”

Francis P. Church of the Sun

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

The Sun then said 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.”

But it wasn’t until the early 1920s when the editorial begin appearing prominently, and without fail, at Christmastime in the Sun.

In the years that followed, readers implored the Sun not to fail to reprint the editorial.

“It will neither be Christmas nor the Sun without it,” declared one reader in 1927.

A letter-writer told the Sun in 1926 that “Is There A Santa Claus?” offered “a fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

“Every year, as I grow a little older,” another reader wrote in 1940, “I find added significance in its profound thoughts.”

WJC

‘Most famous words in American journalism’? Probably not

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Media myths, New York Sun on December 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

In a blog post today, Followthemedia.com says the “Yes, Virginia” passage in the  1897 editorial “Is There A Santa Claus?” are “the most famous words in American journalism.”

And it takes Macy’s to task for its Christmas season “Believe” campaign, a sappy promotion that capitalizes on the editorial and its inspiration, Viriginia O’Hanlon. She was the 8-year-old girl whose letter to the New York Sun asking about the exisitence of Santa Claus prompted the famous editorial.

Followthemedia.com says:

“We know this a is a tough retail year but Is nothing sacred – last week Macy’s, the giant US department store chain, enticed women named Virginia into its stores by offering $10 gift certificate as part of its ‘Believe’ campaign based on the most famous words in US journalism, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.'”

It adds:

“The company hasn’t said how many certificates it gave out, but it estimated there are more than 500,000 Virginias in the US, and it did try to expand the base by saying first, middle or last names would all be ok. And it really was all in a good cause – to bring people into the store to deliver letters to Santa Claus and for each letter delivered the store donated $1 to the Make-A-Wish charity.

“Of course it would never  enter the minds of store executives that once having enticed people into the store they might linger somewhat and actually do some shopping there? Ah, we just have to stop being so cynical at this time of good cheer!”

Cynicism aside, followthemedia.com raises an interesting point about “the most famous words in American journalism.” Are those words really, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?”

I’m not so sure.

The “Yes, Virginia,” passage is invoked so often, and in so many contexts, that no longer is it readily associated with American journalism. “Yes, Virginia,” long ago became unmoored from its original context, the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897.

Media-driven myths have propelled other phrases into what is arguably greater renown in American journalism.

Getting It Wrong: Forthcoming 2010

The quote attributed to William Randolph Hearst — “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” — may even be more famous than “Yes, Virgina?” As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the Hearst quote is almost certainly is apocryphal. But it lives on as a comment too rich and too delicious not to be true.

The same goes for the comment often attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, after watching a CBS News special in late February 1968 in which anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was mired in stalemate.

Johnson, supposedly, had the sudden revelation that the war was now hopeless and turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or words to that effect. Words that may be more famous and more directly tied to journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

But the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is exaggerated, too, as Getting It Wrong discusses. Johnson did not see the program when it aired. And in the days and weeks immediately following the Cronkite program, Johnson continued hawkish calls for national sacrifice to win the war in Vietnam.

Even Cronkite, for many years, said he didn’t believe his comments had much effect on Johnson. Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the supposed power of the program on Vietnam.

He told Esquire magazine in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

But it didn’t, really.

WJC

CBS and ‘Yes, Virginia’: The real story is better

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun on December 11, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Well, that sure was disappointing.

CBS this evening aired a new animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?” (Trailer here.)

The most memorable and most-quoted passage of the Sun‘s editorial 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.”

CBS took great liberties with the backstory to the editorial and in so doing offered up a tedious show that was neither endearing, clever, nor very believable.

Viriginia O'Hanlon

The animated Virginia is depicted as a waddling, round-headed chubby eight-year-old unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is cast as scowling, grumpy, and cold-hearted. Neither main character is very convincing. Or 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.

More important, the backstory to Virginia’s letter and the Sun‘s fabled reply was distorted: The CBS show had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its response, in December, as Christmas approached.

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

As I discuss in my 2006 book, 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.

The Sun’s question-and-answer column, called “Notes and Queries,” appeared irregularly on Sundays and offered pithy and often witty replies to inquiries on factual matters. The “Notes and Queries” column obviously was not well-suited to address such a question as the existence of Santa Claus.

Virginia also recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry; far from being obsessed, she forgot about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut 50 years ago this month, “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 both O’Hanlon’s recollections about having waited and waited 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, and without the remotest idea of its destiny of permanent interest and value.”

The only explanation that reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had overlooked or misplaced the letter that inspired American journalism’s classic editorial.

Francis P. Church

So the most plausible explanation for the editorial’s incongruous 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.

“‘My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me,’” O’Hanlon said 50 years ago, adding:

“‘I think I was a brat.’”

The real backstory to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the vapid fare CBS offered up: The real backstory has serendipity, anticipation, frustration, and charm.

None of which characterized the CBS show tonight.

WJC

The myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’

In Media myths, New York Sun on December 10, 2009 at 2:33 pm

The media relations folks at American University posted at the Newswise public relations site today a rundown about my research into myths surrounding American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Viriginia O'Hanlon

The editorial, an endearing if cerebral tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit, was published in the New York Sun in September 1897, in reply to the query of an 8-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked in a letter, “Is there a Santa Claus?”

The back story to the famous editorial is discussed in detail in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

The post at Newswise notes the editorial’s enduring appeal and adds:

“This year, Macy’s and the CBS television network are cosponsoring an animated children’s program about Virginia O’Hanlon ….” The show is to air at 8 p.m. tomorrow.  I will discuss the program afterward at Media Myth Alert.

The Newswise item also points out:

“Most people assume the editorial was an immediate hit when first published in 1897 and that the Sun enthusiastically reprinted it every year at Christmastime until the newspaper folded in 1950. Not true, said W. Joseph Campbell, a journalism professor and an expert on media myths at American University.”

Indeed, my research shows that the famous editorial was reluctantly embraced by the Sun. A painstaking review of the newspaper’s year-end issues from 1897 to 1949, or just before the Sun went out of business in 1950, shows that  in the ten years from 1898–1907, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was reprinted in the Sun at Christmastime only twice.

The first time was in 1902 and on that occasion, the Sun did so with 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 a gratuitous swipe: “Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

It next reprinted the editorial in 1906, eight months after the death of the editorial’s author, Francis P. Church.

The Sun then said 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.”

Not until the early 1920s did the editorial begin appearing without fail in the Sun at Christmastime.

WJC

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