The most famous newspaper editorial ever written was published this week (Sept. 21) in 1897 in response to a letter from eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, whose friends had told her that Santa Claus did not exist. Confused, she asked her father if that was true and her father — caught off-guard — promptly equivocated. Write a letter to The New York Sun, he told her. They’ll know the answer.
So she did, closing the letter by writing, “Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”
The letter ended up on the desk of one of the Sun’s editorial writers, Francis Church, whose initial response was “Why me?” Editorial writers, Church included, prefer opining on the days’ big events — wars, politics, natural disasters. Church was being asked to respond to the wonderings of a little girl.
He finally relented, in part because he had been a war correspondent during the Civil War and had seen enough skepticism and cynicism to last a lifetime. The editorial ran under the headline “Is There a Santa Claus?”, which must have confused some readers because it was still September. Also, its placement on the editorial page was hardly star treatment. It was the seventh editorial, below editorials on state and local politics, the British naval build-up in the Atlantic, the proposed construction of a Canadian railroad to bring gold from Alaska, and even the invention of a chainless bicycle.
But it soon became the talk of New York — and the country — especially Church’s memorable second paragraph, “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, and no poetry, no romance, to make tolerable this existence. We would have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”
It has since become part of Christmas folklore. It is America’s most widely reprinted newspaper editorial ever (in part because it gives editorial writers a day off), and its story has been told in books, TV shows, movies, plays and more.
And it has made Francis Church and Virginia O’Hanlon both famous and immortal. Her entire adult life — she died in 1971 — Virginia received mail asking about her Santa Claus letter, and she replied to every single person. And she always included a printed copy of her letter and Church’s magical reply.