Yes, Virginia, There Still Is a Santa ClausBy Larry L. Burriss, Ph.D.
It was September 1897, and 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s friends had just confronted her with the grim possibility that Santa Claus did not exist. At the urging of her father, she wrote to the New York Sun to find out the truth.
Many grown-ups likely would have hedged their answer to that question, invoking other holiday traditions such as Christmas trees, presents and tinsel. But Sun editor Frank Church took a more direct approach. “Virginia,” he wrote to the girl who years later would receive a doctorate in education from Fordham University, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. …
“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 your life its highest beauty and joy.”
O’Hanlon’s letter and Church’s response, which appeared on the editorial page of the Sun on Sept. 21, 1897, would be reprinted millions of times in newspapers across the world in the century that followed. (Read the full text at the Newseum website.) It also appeared in O’Hanlon’s doctoral dissertation, “The Importance of Play,” which she presented at Fordham in 1930.
By that time, Virginia had become Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas and had a daughter of her own. She was teaching grade school and later would be named junior principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 401, which held classes for chronically ill children at hospitals and other institutions. But, as her dissertation suggests, O’Hanlon was always a child at heart.
Her research stressed the importance of looking at the world through a child’s eyes. She traced the history of play, noting that “the most striking and compelling testimony in all literature is that given in the Bible in the Book of Matthew, Chapter XI, Verses 16-17, in which our Lord refers to the games played by the children of Nazareth in imitation of weddings and ceremonies.” She also wrote, “[P]lay must be given another home if His work is really to be done.”
In discussing the shortage of toys in certain neighborhoods of New York City, O’Hanlon wrote, “The pushcart displays an occasional doll or tea set for sale but not such as make glad the heart of childhood”—the last line of Church’s response to her letter.
Forty years after her letter appeared in the Sun, Grossett & Dunlap published a second letter from O’Hanlon in a booklet titled “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 will 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 reach Santa Claus so that “he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
That, I think, is the best way of proving there is a Santa Claus, both for ourselves and for the children. Do you remember how Peter Pan once asked us to show our belief in fairies? You will of course do it a little differently, but you will each understand how. So, like Peter, I say, “Show you believe, please show you do,” and I shall always be gratefully yours,
Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas
Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, in a nursing home near Albany, N.Y., at the age of 81. But the message she elicited through Frank Church lives on. In 1989, long after O’Hanlon’s childhood home had been gutted and boarded up, someone pinned an unsigned Christmas card to the door, along with a copy of Church’s editorial.
O’Hanlon’s granddaughter, Mary Blair, once stated in an interview with United Press International, “I try to draw from the letter [that] the spirit of Santa Claus is very real for me. If you really get the meaning of what Frank Church was trying to say, you’d believe in Santa Claus too.”
—Larry L. Burriss, Ph.D., a journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University, still believes in Santa Claus.
A version of this story was published in the Winter 1999 issue of FORDHAM magazine.