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Yes, Kelsey & Maddie O'Flaherty, there is a Santa Claus
by Bridget Haggerty
This article came about because our nieces revealed to us right before Christmas that they no longer believe in Santa Claus.
In an effort to set them straight, we took a closer look at the legendary editorial written by Francis Church and we were delighted to discover that it was inspired by a letter from another young Irish-American girl - Virginia O'Hanlon.
A few years ago, a TV show depicted eight-year old Virginia as being the daughter of a poor Irish emigrant. In fact, her dad was a noted physician in the NYC police department and the family lived very comfortably in New York's upper west side.
When Dr. Philip O'Hanlon arrived home on a warm September evening in 1897, Virginia was waiting for him at the door of their brownstone. She was in tears. Understandably, her dad was very concerned and between sniffles, his little girl told him what was wrong. Christmas was coming, and Virginia had been looking forward to Santa's annual visit. That is, until some of her less fortunate friends told her there was no Santa Claus.
Then came the most often-asked question: "Is there really a Santa Claus?". Imagine the scene at 115 W. 95th Street. For a moment, Dr. O'Hanlon had no idea what to say - but then he had an inspiration. In the past, the O'Hanlon family had written to the "Question and Answer" column in The New York Sun to settle matters of fact. "Write a letter," he told her, to the New York Sun. If you see it in the Sun, it's so."
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?
When Virginia's letter arrived at the newspaper, it was given to Francis Church. During the Civil War, Francis had been a war correspondent for The New York Times. After the war, he and his brother established The Army and Navy Journal and Galaxy Magazine. When Galaxy merged with Atlantic Monthly, Francis became an editorial writer for The New York Sun.
Church, a sardonic man, had for his personal motto, "Endeavor to clear your mind of cant." When controversial subjects had to be tackled on the editorial page, especially those dealing with theology, the assignments were usually given to Church. It has been reported that Church didnt accept his latest job happily. "At first he bristled and pooh-poohed the subject," wrote Edward P. Mitchell, his editor, "but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk." Within hours, his 500-word response was ready for publication and it appeared in The Sun the very next day - September 21st, 1897:
Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except that which 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 countless 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 have 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 that 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 the strongest men, 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 supernatural 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.
On the day it ran, it was the seventh editorial on the page. It ran below editorials on New York State politics and New York City politics and even Connecticut politics. It ran below an editorial about increased British naval strength in the Atlantic. Below an editorial about plans for a railroad to help link eastern Canada with the newly discovered gold fields of the Yukon. It even ran below an editorial about a newfangled "chainless" bicycle that would soon be available. "Wheelmen and wheelwomen," the writer declared, "have been impatient to know all about the new machine."
Church's editorial ran below all of those. But it ran. And for its title, it used Virginia O'Hanlon's own question: "Is There a Santa Claus?"
And so it was that a great newspaper and a battle-hardened editorial writer took a child's question seriously and created what was to become one of the best-loved Christmas classics of all time. Each year, in countless newspapers and magazines, the memory of a childish question and its loving response are revived.
To our surprise, the story doesn't end there. Her faith restored, little Virginia grew up and went to college. She graduated from Hunter with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1910 and she received her Master's degree from Columbia a year later. In 1912, she began a 47-year career as an educator. She worked with children all her life, at one time serving as principal of a school that held classes in hospitals for chronically ill children.
And she wrote another letter about Santa Claus.
Her second letter was published in a small book by Grosset and Dunlap on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Church's editorial. At the peak of her career as an educator, a grown-up Virginia wrote to answer the question of Santa's existence for a new generation of Kelseys, Maddie's and Virginias:
"Is there a Santa Claus?'
Dear children of yesterday and today, when that question was asked, I, a little girl, was interested in finding out the answer just for myself. Now, grown up and a teacher, I want so much that all little children believe there really is a Santa Claus. For I understand how essential a belief in Santa Claus, and in fairies, too, is to a happy childhood.
Some little children doubt that Santa still lives because often their letters, for one reason or another, never seem to reach him. Nurses in hospitals know who some of these children are. Teachers in great city schools know others.
Dear children of yesterday, won't you try to seek out these trusting children of today and make sure that their letters in some way may reach Santa Claus so that 'he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood'? That, I believe, is the best way of proving there is a Santa Claus, for ourselves and for the children.
Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81. Right up until the time of her death, she answered all of the many letters people wrote to her about her famous letter to the New York Sun - and she always included a copy of Church's legendary editorial in her reply. The New York School of Printing reproduced the Suns Santa Claus editorial for Mrs. Douglas private use as a handsomely printed sheet. She used the sheet to answer requests for text, which continued throughout her life. It was a message she communicated to the thousands of children who were her pupils during nearly half a century of teaching, as she thought to 'make glad the heart of childhood'.
The History Channel, 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 after the fire, it was discovered intact. The original is now in the possession of a great-grandson, who lives in Tucson, Arizona.
As for any credit given to Francis Church, the Sun had a rule that the identity of all editorial writers should be kept secret. It wasn't until after his death in 1906 that it became publicly known that he had written, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Ironically, while he married shortly after the editorial appeared, he never became a father.
And so dear Kelsey and Maddie - and to all children everywhere - as long as you believe in goodness, generosity, guardian angels, and so many other things you cannot see - but you know are real, the essence of Santa Claus will always be in your heart - if only you believe.
An article by William Herbert "Skip" Boyer
An article written by Rick Horowitz
Hymns & Carols of Christmas
The History Channel
While this Emmy-award-winning animated program is charming and most children will enjoy it, it's not entirely accurate: Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
Images: New York Sun page from Hymns & Carols of Christmas
Virginia O'Hanlon from Hymns & Carols of Christmas
Santa Claus print by Thomas Nast from All Posters and prints.
Note: The Thomas Nast print is from an even earlier era.
For more of our Holiday Stories click on the following links.
Time at this Point in the Year
An Advent Memory
Yes, Kelsey and Maddie, there is a Santa Claus
Waiting for St. Nicholas
Christmas - Preparing the Puddings
Christmas - Food for the Feast
An Irish Christmas - Then & Now
An Irish Christmas - The Day Before
Memories of Christmas Eve Past
An Irish Christmas - Ding Dong Merrily On High
Seasons Greetings in Irish
St. Stephen's Day to New Year's Eve
New Year's Day to Epiphany
Many Years Ago by John B. Keane
Rowing to Christmas Mass
Burying the Baby Jesus
White Washed Walls
An East Cork Christmas
Tue, Dec 2, 2014
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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