6. Is there a Santa Claus?
In 1897, Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, a coroner's assistant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia O'Hanlon (1889–1971), whether Santa Claus really existed. O'Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." In so doing, Dr. O'Hanlon had unwittingly given one of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it.
Church was a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time that saw great suffering and a corresponding lack of hope and faith in much of society. Although the paper ran the editorial in the seventh place on the page, below even one on the newly invented "chainless bicycle", it was both noticed and well-received by readers. More than a century later it is the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language.
Reprinted from the New York Sun, September 21, 1897 editorial:
We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
Virginia, 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. 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 external 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.
Laura Virginia O'Hanlon
Laura Virginia O'Hanlon was born on July 20, 1889, in Manhattan, New York. Her marriage to Edward Douglas in the 1910s was brief, and ended with him deserting her shortly before their daughter, Laura, was born. She was listed as divorced in the 1930 United States Census but nevertheless kept her ex-husband's surname the rest of her life, styled as "Laura Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas."
Virginia received her Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College in 1910, a master's degree in education from Columbia University in 1912, and a doctorate from Fordham University. She was a school teacher in the New York City Intermediate School District. She started her career as an educator in 1912, became a junior principal in 1935, and retired in 1959.
Virginia received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her life. She would include a copy of the editorial in her replies. In an interview later in life, she credited it with shaping the direction of her life quite positively.
In December 2012, radio station WGNA-FM in Albany, NY secured a never before published photo of Virginia finally meeting Santa on Christmas Eve 1969, two years before her death.
Virginia died on May 13, 1971 at the age of 81, in a nursing home in Valatie, New York She is buried at the Chatham Rural Cemetery in North Chatham, New York.
In 1971, after seeing Virginia's obituary in The New York Times, four friends formed a company called Elizabeth Press and published a children's book titled Yes, Virginia that illustrated the editorial and included a brief history of the main characters. Its creators took it to Warner Brothers who eventually made an Emmy award-winning television show based on the editorial. The History Channel, in a special that aired on February 21, 2001, noted that Virginia gave the original letter to a granddaughter, who pasted it in a scrapbook. It was feared that the letter was destroyed in a house fire, but 30 years later, it was discovered intact.
A copy of the letter, hand-written by Virginia and believed to be the original by her family was authenticated in 1998 by Kathleen Guzman, an appraiser on the television program Antiques Roadshow. Some commentators doubt that a young girl would refer to children her own age as "my little friends" and suspect Virginia's father may have assisted her in composing the letter or even wrote it himself.
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