In the summer of 1897, 25th President of the United States William McKinley, had barely moved into the White House. The nation’s first subway opened in the city of Boston while, in Seattle, the Klondike gold rush was just getting underway. Thomas Edison received the patent for an early projector called a Kinetoscope. Mark Twain penned a rebuttal as only Mark Twain could to his own obituary in the pages of the New York Journal: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Then one day there came the Dread Question asked by eight-year-olds the world over, and answered by fathers since the dawn of time: “Go ask your mother”.
Just kidding. Not that one – the Other dread question. The Santa Claus question.
History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Possibly, that little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead.
“Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real”.
He was coroner’s assistant, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon. She was his daughter, 8-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon.
Dr. O’Hanlon neither sent his little girl to ask her mother, nor did he try to answer himself. He suggested she write to the New York Sun newspaper. “If you see it in The Sun”, he said, “it’s so.”
So it is a little girl’s note made its way across the city to the New York Sun, to the desk of Edward Page Mitchell. The hard core science fiction buff will remember Mitchell for tales about time travel, invisibility and man-computing-machine cyborgs long before the likes of H.G. Wells ever thought about such things but on this day, the editor and sometimes author had a job to do.
Mitchell believed the letter was worthy of reply. He brought the assignment to copy writer Francis “Frank” Pharcellus Church.
It was an unlikely choice.
Church was not the dilettante, partisan idler who’d style himself today, as “journalist”. This was a hard-bitten News Man of the old school, a cynic, street reporter, atheist and former Civil War correspondent who’d seen it all and didn’t believe the half of it.
Picture Perry White, the irascible editor-in-chief of the fictional Daily Planet newspaper in the old Superman series, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Frank Church. You can almost hear the walrus-mustachioed old curmudgeon grumbling across the ages as he returned to his desk, a little girl’s note in his hand.
The old grouch didn’t even want his name associated with the reply.
The New York Sun published Church’s response on September 21, 1897.
“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 W. 95th St.
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 truth and knowledge. 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 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.
Frank Church’s friends, family and colleagues scarcely knew the man had it in him. You can almost imagine the excitement of a little girl, scouring the pages of The Sun for two months to find nothing and then…THAT. Through the rest of that Christmas season of 1897 and on for the rest of her life, Virginia O’Hanlon would never forget that reply.
Frank Church’s letter went on to become the most widely reprinted editorial in the history of the English language albeit anonymously until the year he died, in 1906. According to New York Sun internal policies, that’s when Church was finally revealed as responding editor and author of that timeless response.
Virginia went on to marry one Edward Douglas in 1910, a man who stuck around just long enough to abandon her with the couple’s first child, as yet unborn. Not exactly a credit to his sex, that one.
Perhaps the childlike sense of delight in that newspaper column is what helped the young mother through her darkest hours. Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas went on to devote her life’s work to children. Following Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctorate degrees at Hunter, Columbia and Fordham University, O’Hanlon went on to become a lifelong teacher, assistant principal and finally principal.
Virginia’s childhood home is now The Studio School offering an academic scholarship, named after Virginia O’Hanlon.
In 1932, The Sun’s response was adapted to a cantata, the only known newspaper editorial ever set to classical music. The 1989 film Prancer contained a fictional editorial entitled “Yes, Santa, there is a Virginia“.
Every year at Christmas, Virginia’s letter and Frank’s response are read aloud at a Yule log ceremony at Church’s alma mater, Columbia College.
In a 1960 appearance on the Perry Como Show, Virginia told the host her letter has been “answered for me thousands of times.”
Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas kept the name of her long-since absconded husband for the rest of her life, according to the custom of the day. She passed away on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81.
Throughout her long life she received a steady stream of mail about her letter and never failed to pen a personal reply, including a copy of Church’s column. Virginia grew sickly toward the end of her life but, throughout countless interviews over the course of her 81 years she’d always credit the Sun’s editorial with changing her life. For the better.
Perhaps it was the Christmas Spirit or whatever you’d like to call it, that most of us have learned to experience but one time a year. For Virginia O’Hanlon that sense of warmth, of generosity and kindness to be found at the bottom of all human hearts, never really went away.
So, let the cynics and the curmudgeons come to understand on this Christmas day and beyond. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus.