Virginia O'Hanlon

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Virginia O'Hanlon

In 1897 an eight-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to a newspaper called the New York Sun. The letter asked the newspaper editor to tell her whether or not Santa Claus was real. Virginia's letter, and the newspaper's response, have become beloved bits of American Christmas lore. The often-quoted phrase, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," comes from the paper's editorial response, written by reporter Francis P. Church and published on September 21, 1897.

Virginia's Letter and the Sun's Response

Dear Editor:

I am 8 years old. 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?

115 West 95th Street New York City

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 eternal 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 they did not see Santa Claus coming down what would that prove? Nobody sees 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, fancy, 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 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.

Who Was Francis P. Church?

Francis Church, the child of a Baptist minister, was born in 1839. He graduated from Columbia College in 1859 and went on to cover the Civil War as a reporter for the New York Times. Some time after that he joined the staff of the New York Sun, where he covered religious matters.

When Virginia's letter arrived at the offices of the Sun in 1897, the editorial page chief assigned Church the chore of writing a response. Church, known for his bitter, sarcastic wit, was none too pleased with the assignment, but resigned himself to crafting a suitable reply. His response surpassed everyone's expectations. It was so popular that the Sun reprinted it every year at Christmas time, until the paper went out of business about fifty years later. Church died in 1906.

Whatever Happened to Virginia?

Virginia's early thirst for knowledge continued as she matured into adulthood. She graduated from New York's Hunter College in 1910 with a B.A., and went on to acquire an M.A. at Columbia University. She completed her studies with a Ph.D. from Fordham University. Dr. O'Hanlon served as an educator in New York City's public school system, ending her career as principal of P.S. 401 in Brooklyn. She retired in 1959 and died in 1971.

Further Reading

Foley, Daniel J. Christmas in the Good Old Days. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1994. Pool, Daniel. Christmas in New York. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997. Snyder, Phillip V. December 25. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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