The grudging emergence
of American journalism’s classic editorial:
New details about “Is There A Santa Claus?”
By W. Joseph Campbell
American Journalism 22, (2) Spring 2005
American journalism’s best-known editorial was obscure in first appearance, incongruous in timing, and almost an afterthought in placement. The editorial prompted no immediate comment or reaction from other newspapers. That it ever gained iconic status is testimony to the persistence and admiration of its readers.
The editorial was the New York Sun’s lyrical and timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit, “Is There A Santa Claus?”1 It was written by Francis Pharcellus Church (photo right), a veteran editorialist for the Sun, in reply to the inquiry of 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus,” she had written. “Papa says ‘if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong,” Church wrote in reply. “They have been afflicted by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” After ruminating for a few sentences about the narrow dimensions of human imagination, Church invoked 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.”
“Is There A Santa Claus?” was published 21 September 1897, more than three months before the Christmas holiday. It was placed in the third of three columns of editorials that day, subordinate to seven other commentaries on such matters as “British Ships in American Waters,” ambiguity in Connecticut’s election law, and features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.2 Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial drew no comment from the Sun’s bitter rivals in New York. For its part, the Sun mostly ignored the editorial for the next ten years.
But readers noted it, found it memorable,3 and, in untold numbers, repeatedly asked that it be republished. “Every December, as surely as the revolving year brings back the holiday season,” the Sun once noted, “we receive from our friends many requests to reprint again the Santa Claus editorial article written … by … Francis Pharcellus Church.”4 Requests often came from parents of young children, such as the letter-writer in 1918 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.5
Readers over the years found in its passages “a fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season6 and “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”7 The editorial was also seen as a way for parents to answer children’s’ inquiries about Santa Claus, and be truthful in doing so.8
This article—which is based on a detailed examination of the Sun’s editorial pages at year-end from 1897 to 1949 and on a review of numerous newspaper articles over the years that quoted Virginia O’Hanlon—directs attention to fresh insights and little-recognized aspects about American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial. The article’s findings:
The Sun was slow—grudgingly so—to embrace the famous editorial. The common view—that the editorial was an immediate success, that the Sun reprinted it every year at Christmastime until the newspaper folded in January 19509—is inaccurate. The Sun resisted reprinting the editorial in the ten years following 1897. When it did, the Sun was reluctant, once making the gratuitous observation that scrapbooks “seem to be wearing out.”10 Not until the 1920s did the Sun routinely republish the editorial at Christmastime.
The newspaper’s reluctant embrace of “Is There A Santa Claus?” likely stemmed from both Church’s tendency to demur in acknowledging authorship of his editorials and from the Sun’s disinclination to promote or identify its journalists as stars.
The editorial’s incongruous appearance three months before Christmas in 1897 is best explained by the excitement of a little girl. Virginia O’Hanlon said years after publication that she, as a child, began wondering at her birthday in July what gifts she would receive at Christmas. Her excited speculation prompted her to write to the Sun in the summer of 1897.
O’Hanlon intended her inquiry for the Sun’s question-and-answer column, which appeared from time to time on Sundays. She was surprised when her letter prompted a response on the editorial page. But her letter has been ignored or overlooked at the Sun for weeks. O’Hanlon said on a number of occasions that she had waited at length for the newspaper to address her inquiry. Church, however, was said to have written the reply “hastily, in the course of the day’s work.”11 The explanation that reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time ignored or overlooked the letter that inspired American journalism’s classic editorial.
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1. “Is There A Santa Claus?” New York Sun (21 September 1897): 6.
2. “British Ships in American Waters,” “The English Language in Connecticut,” “The Chainless Bicycle,” New York Sun (21 September 1897): 6.
3. Readers of the Sun were known to invoke the editorial in discussing controversies about whether children should be discouraged from belief in Santa Claus. For example, a letter-writer to the Sun said in December 1898: “A year ago, in a very beautiful editorial, the Sun answered a little girl’s question as to the existence of Santa Claus. The interest of your paper in this subject prompts me to call your attention to the outrageous presumption of certain teachers in the public schools in New York and Brooklyn” who had told schoolchildren that Santa Claus did not exist. See “Santa Claus,” New York Sun (22 December 1898): 6.
4. “’Is There A Santa Claus?’” New York Sun (25 December 1918): 6.
5. Untitled letter to the editor, New York Sun (25 December 1918): 6.
6. Quoted in “A Classic and Its Author,” New York Sun (23 December 1926): 16.
7. Mario Canevaro, “In Appreciation,” letter to the editor, New York Sun (27 December 1940): 16.
8. See, for, example, Mrs. G.C. Jefferis, “Santa Claus,” letter to the editor, New York Sun (12 October 1897): 6.
9. See, for example, “Girl Who Asked Sun of Santa Won’t Tell If She Found One,” Washington Post (25 December 1934): 14; Murray Illson, “Prompted Santa Claus Editorial,” New York Times (14 May 1971): 44; “Haynes Johnson, “One Gift of Words That Turned Into a Christmas Treasure,” Washington Post (25 December 1983): A3; Frederic D. Schwarz, “The Big Question,” American Heritage (September 1997); Mark Neuzil, “In Newspapers We Don’t Trust Anymore, Virginia,” Star Tribune [Minneapolis] (18 December 1997): 32A; “How Famed Editorial Came to Be,” Allentown [PA] Morning Call (25 December 1998): A36, and Chris Rovzar, “Sun Shines at Lord & Taylor Display,” New York Sun (14 November 2003): 13.
10. “Santa Claus,” New York Sun (25 December 1902): 4.
11. See “Is There A Santa Claus?” New York Sun (25 December 1913): 8.