The History Behind “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus”

Virginia O’Hanlon

Is There a Santa Claus? was the title of an editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus“, has become an indelible part of popular Christmas folklore.

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.” He unwittingly gave 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”, its message was very moving to many people who read it. More than a century later it remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

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 the 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.

Some people have questioned the veracity of the letter’s authorship, expressing doubt that a young girl such as Virginia would refer to children her own age as “my little friends”. The original letter, however, appeared and was authenticated in 1998 by Kathleen Guzman, an appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow, at $20,000–$30,000.

Every year, Virginia’s letter and Church’s response are read at the Yule Log ceremony at Church’s alma mater, Columbia College of Columbia University.

The story of Virginia’s inquiry and the The Sun‘s response was adapted in 1932 into an NBC produced cantata (the only known editorial set to classical music) and an Emmy Award-winning animated television special in 1974, animated by Bill Meléndez (best known for his work on the various Peanuts specials) and featuring the voices of Jim Backus, Susan Silo and Courtney Lemmon, with theme song performed by Jimmy Osmond. In 1991 it was adapted into a made-for-TV movie with Richard Thomas and Charles Bronson. In 1996, the story of Virginia’s inquiry and the The Sun‘s response was adapted into a holiday musical “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” by David Kirchenbaum (music and lyrics) and Myles McDonnel (book).

In New York City, local television journalist Gabe Pressman has recounted the story each Christmas for the past thirty years.

The last two paragraphs of Church’s editorial are read by actor Sam Elliot in the 1989 film Prancer, about Jessica Riggs, a little girl who believes the wounded reindeer she is nursing back to health belongs to Santa. Jessica’s story inspires the local newspaper editor, as Virginia’s letter did to Church, to write an editorial which he titles Yes, Santa, there are still Virginias.

On September 21, 1997, the exact 100th anniversary of the original publication of the editorial, The New York Times published an analysis of its enduring appeal.

In 2003 “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” was depicted in a mechanical holiday window display at the Lord & Taylor department store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

In 2009, The Studio School in New York City, honored Virginia’s life and legacy. Janet C. Rotter, Head of School, announced the establishment of the Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship, speaking passionately about their commitment to offering need-based scholarships for students of merit. Virginia’s descendants continue her legacy.

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