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How Virginia was able to get the truth about old St. Nick

December 25, 2004

From The People's Almanac, pp. 1358-9.

Francis P. Church's editorial, "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa

Claus," was an immediate sensation, and became one of the most famous

editorials ever written. It first appeared in The New York Sun in

1897, almost 100 years ago, and was reprinted annually until 1949,

when the paper went out of business.

Thirty-six years after her letter was printed, Virginia O'Hanlon

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recalled the events that prompted her letter:

"Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never

disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said

there wasn't any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my

father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.

"It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as

to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in

doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in The Sun. Father

would always say, 'If you see it in The Sun, it's so,' and that

settled the matter.

" 'Well, I'm just going to write The Sun and find out the real

truth,' I said to father.

"He said, 'Go ahead, Virginia. I'm sure The Sun will give you the

right answer, as it always does.' "

And so Virginia sat down and wrote her parents' favorite

newspaper.

Her letter found its way into the hands of a veteran editor,

Francis Pharcellus Church, who was born in Rochester, N.Y., on Feb.

22, 1839, the son of a Baptist minister. He had covered the Civil War

for The New York Times and had worked at The New York Sun for 20

years, most recently as an anonymous editorial writer.

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.

Now, he had in his hands a little girl's letter on a most

controversial matter, and he was burdened with the responsibility of

answering it.

"Is there a Santa Claus?" the childish scrawl in the letter asked.

At once, Church knew that there was no avoiding the question. He must

answer, and he must answer truthfully. And so he turned to his desk

and began his reply, which was to become one of the most memorable

editorials in newspaper history.

Church married shortly after the editorial appeared. He died in

April 1906, leaving no children. Virginia O'Hanlon went on to

graduate from Hunter College with a bachelor of arts degree at age

21. The following year, she received her master's from Columbia, and

in 1912 she began teaching in the New York City school system, later

becoming a principal. After 47 years, she retired as an educator.

Throughout her life she received a steady stream of mail about her

Santa Claus letter, and to each reply she attached an attractive

printed copy of the Church editorial.

Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81,

in a nursing home in Valatie, N.Y.

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