Monday, December 17, 2018

Virginia O'Hanlon and explaining Santa Claus to children

Virginia O'Hanlan
Explaining Santa Claus to children has always posed a problem, even for parents in a more innocent era, who lived at a time when there was no television, no Internet and no shopping malls.  Unfortunately, the issue has not disappeared.  It is still with us and it poses an even greater challenge for 21st century parents.  How can modern parents prevent their children from feeling that they have been deceived by their elders, that they've been fed a great big lie?

Let me take you back to the late 19th century and the famous story of  an eight-year-old girl who wanted to know the truth about Santa Claus.  Laura Virginia O'Hanlon was born in Manhattan, New York City on July 20, 1889.  Her father, Dr. Philip O'Hanlan, was a coroner's assistant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a distinguished physician in the New York City Police Department.  In 1897, Dr. O'Hanlon was asked by his daughter whether Santa really existed.  He handled the situation by suggesting that Virginia write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper in those days.  He told his daughter, "if you seen it in The Sun, it's so."

Virginia circa 1895

Virginia took her father's advice and sent the following letter to The Sun's Questions and Answers column.

Dear Editor,

I am eight 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's letter was assigned to one of the editors at the paper, a veteran newsman named Francis Pharcellus Church (1839-1906).  Francis Church, the son of a Baptist minister, was a former Civil War correspondent for the New York Times  After the war, he and his older brother, William Conant Church (1836-1917), founded The Army and Navy Review Journal, which covered the U.S. military and its history.  The Church brothers also edited and published Galaxy, a monthly literary magazine, from 1866 to 1868.  In 1878, after Galaxy was absorbed by Atlantic Monthly. Francis joined joined The Sun fulltime.

When he was assigned the task of writing a response to Virginia's letter, Francis Church had worked at The Sun for some 20 years and specialized in dealing with religious and controversial matters.  Church, then 58 years old, was a lead editorial writer for the paper and it was in that capacity that he replied to the eight-year-old's correspondence.  He  has been characterized as a sardonic man whose personal motto was "Endeavour to clear your mind of cant." 

According to The Sun's editorial page editor, Edward P. Mitchell (1952-1927), Francis Church was not pleased about his assignment.  Mitchell wrote in his memoir: "At first he bristled and pooh-poohed the subject, when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O'Hanlon; but took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk."

On September 21, 1897, Francis Church's response to Virginia's query was printed in an unsigned editorial on page 6  of The Sun.  Since the paper had a policy of keeping its editorials anonymous, Church was not publicly revealed as its author until shortly after his death in 1906.  It was the first time in its history that the The Sun had broken its policy of anonymity.  In a n editorial note tribute, the newspaper said: At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us, we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl"

In his 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, author E. Joseph Canmpbell described Francis Church as a reticent, retiring man, who avoided the spotlight.  Campbell wrote that Church would not have appreciated being identified as the one who wrote "Is there a Santa Claus?"

Francis Church

Here is Francis Church's reply to Virginia O'Hanlon:

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong.  They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.  They do not believe (except) what they see.  They think that nothing can be 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 the highest beauty and joy.  Alas!  How dreary would be the world 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 extinguished.

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.  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 word 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.

Below is an image of a clipping of the editorial.

In his editorial, Francis Church wrote that Santa exists "as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist."  Yet, according to radio commentator Paul Harvey (1918-2009), Church's words were uncharacteristic of the crusty newsman .  In one of his popular The Rest of the Story segments, Harvey described Church as hard-nosed skeptic.  How ironic that such a man would be the one to write one of the most revered and well-known editorials on the importance of  "faith, fancy. poetry, love, romance" and that it would become his only claim to fame.

Virgina O'Hanlon grew up to be a teacher, educator and activist for children's rights.  She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College in 1910 and a master's degree in education from Columbia University in 1912,  In 1930, she received a doctorate from Fordham University in New York City.  Her dissertation was entitled "The Importance of Play."

Virginia taught in the New York City Independent School District and began her career as an educator in 1912.  In 1935, she became an assistant principal at a school located on the lower side of Manhattan, amid tenement slums.  That same year, dismayed by the poverty around her, O'Hanlon made the following comment to a reporter: "I still keep my faith in the ultimate kindness of human nature, but how can I, or anyone, believe in the Santa I knew as a child when today there is so much misery and suffering in the world."

St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 23, 1935

Virginia O'Hanlon retired in 1959.  Her childhood residence at 115 West 95th Street, Manhattan has been transformed into the home of the Studio School, a private elementary school, which was founded in 1971.  With the help of a fund-raising drive, the school was able to purchase the Upper West Side building where Virginia was raised and where she wrote her famous letter.  It has has been located there since the fall of 2006.

As it looks today as the Studio School

In early December of 2008, the Studio School paid tribute to Virginia's legacy by holding its inaugural "Dear Virginia" celebration, an annual event to celebrate her passionate belief in the importance of education for all children and her lifetime devotion to this ideal.  Three generations of Virginia's family attended the event.

In 2009, Janet C. Rotter, the Studio School's head, announced the establishment of the Virginia O'Hanlon Scholarship Fund.  According to its website, the school established t "so that we may educate children take their place in the world with integrity, compassion, and a lifelong love for learning."  It states that the Fund provides need-based scholarships for students of merit,

Virginia's letter to The Sun and Francis Church's editorial have become a part of Christmas folklore.  The editorial, commonly known a "Yes Virginia, there is Santa Claus," has been reprinted many times and translated into many different languages.  However, Virginia always downplayed her role in the matter and often said that Francis Church deserved the credit.  In a 1959 interview, she was reported to have remarked, "It (the letter) gave me a special place in life I didn't deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial, and to try to make glad the heart of childhood."

Parents still grapple about explaining Santa Claus to their children.  In this digital age, not many eight-year-old children would send a handwritten letter to a newspaper, especially in cursive style.
I don't have all the answers but it might be helpful to tell your children the story of Virginia O'Hanlon and to read Francis Church's famous editorial and to explain it to them.  It might also be helpful to inform your children that Santa is based on Saint Nicholas (traditionally March 15, 270 - December  6, 343), a real person who really existed.  He was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek city of Myra in Asia Minor (modern day Demre, Turkey) and became known for his acts of generosity to the poor, his love for children and his concern for ships and sailors.


*  Francis Church died on April 11, 1906 in New York City at the age of 67.  He and his wife did not have any children.

* In June of 1913, Virgina O'Hanlon married a jeweller named Edwin Malcolm Douglas (That is the name on his gravestone, although some sources refer to him as "Edward Douglas."  Douglas left Virginia and their daughter, Laura, and the couple eventually divorced. (Virginia was listed as divorced in the 1930 United States Census, but retained her ex-husband's surname).  Edwin Malcolm Douglas died on June 8, 1939 at the age of 52. 

Below is a photo of Virginia and daughter Laura from The Sun, December 25, 1914.

* The Sun, was fist published in 1833.  On January 4, 1950, it ceased publication and merged with the New York World-Telegram to form a new newspaper called the New York World-Telegram and Sun.

* Virginia appeared as a guest on Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall on December 21, 1960.  The show was broadcast in black and white and Como asked Virginia if she would like to hear the editorial read again.  Her response was that the never tired of hearing it.  News anchor Chet Huntley then came on stage and read it.

* Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971 in a nursing home in Valatie, New York.  She spent the last years of her life in a poor health and was 81 years old at the time of her passing.

* Virginia's daughter, Laura Virginia Douglas Temple (born March 20, 1914), passed away on February 12, 1998 at the age of 83. 

* On February 21, 2001, the History Channel reported that Virginia gave her original letter to a granddaughter who placed it in a scrapbook.  There were fears that it had been destroyed in a fire.  However, it was discovered intact.

Virginia in later years

SOURCES: Studio School website; Biography website; Media Myth Alert, "Recalling Francis P. Church: No Self-promoting athor, he", by E. Joseph Campbell, December 24, 2009; Media Myth Alert, "Christmas Eve 100 years ago: NY Sun catches up with Virginia O'Hanlon of 'Yes, Virginia,' fame", by E. Joseph Campbell, December 23, 2014; Wikipedia

- Joanne

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