Sunday, 7 December 2014


The season is upon us once again for those of us who celebrate Christmas. The focus has changed, for a time, from writing letters to sending holiday greetings to friends. At this time of the year I'm always reminded of a young letter writer who was thinking very hard about Christmas. Her name was Laura Virginia O’Hanlon.

Virginia, as she was known, was the daughter of Dr. O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant in Manhattan, New York. It was in September of 1897 that his daughter asked him that fateful question: Is there a Santa Claus? Virginia was at an age when she’d begun to question things, much of this due to what her classmates at school had been talking about, and so not wanting to let go of the wonder of Santa just yet, she went to her father and talked to him about it.

Dr. O’Hanlon diplomatically told his daughter to write to the editor of The New York Sun, a prominent Newspaper of that era, adding “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Thus, 8-year-old Virginia, put pen to paper and what ensued is one of the most celebrated letters of the 20th century.

Francis Pharcellus Church wasted no time in responding to Virginia’s query: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” Church’s beautiful and passionate response gave Virginia her answer; and it spoke to the hearts of many others simultaneously. It continues to touch people even today, having the distinction of being the most reprinted editorial in history. Since then it has been translated into many languages, books recount the story and even movies stem from Church’s classic reply.

For me this is the ultimate letter. One that lives on and invokes thoughts and emotions even so many years after it was written. Church, a seasoned war correspondent during the American Civil War, undoubtedly drew upon the things he witnessed and perhaps this is where his ardent response was born; a response I believe, that will be revisited for many years to come as it inspires faith, love and hope, three things which abound, though we may not always notice them.

As for Virginia, throughout her life she continued to receive mail about her iconic letter to The Sun and later in life during an interview she remarked that it had consequently given her life direction in quite a positive way.

Here is the beautiful reply to Virginia’s letter as it appeared in The New York Sun, September 21, 1897. 

Is There a Santa Claus?

  We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of THE SUN:

"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?
      Virginia O'Hanlon
         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 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

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they 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 there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may 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, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed catching up on your posts, but this one makes me uneasy. Do we lie to our children when we tell them lies about the Easter Bunny, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, etc.? Or are we laying the ground work for instilling a sense of make believe, magical thinking, imagination and . . . I ask because I still recall the day I discovered the Easter Bunny wasn't real. It shattered something vital in my heart and in my mind. My grandmother killed the Easter Bunny! Then I discovered my parents were Santa! I carried a grudge for years. Besides, they lied to me. Then I did the same to my daughter until I couldn't any more. I explained to hear about the spirit of Christmas.

    Now I ask myself if Christmas would be just as special if they knew their parents were the . . . No. Probably not. Maybe they would! We loved saving and buying gifts when we were kids; we didn't want anyone to be left out. Our parents said we were helping Santa. Oh! I wish I hadn't read your post! :) Dang that Mr. Church! And Virginia. LOL!

    Happy New Year!