“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”
(Reprinted From 2013)
In the spirit of the season, here is a reprint of an article I wrote a few years ago. It is about Virginia O'Hanlon (1889–1971). People today may not remember the phrase so much, but back in the day, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," was a well-known comment every December.
Reprinted from The EP Reporter 2013:
"Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus"
Generations of children have wondered about the existence of Santa Claus. How have you dealt with this issue in your family? Will Santa visit East Providence? Would the former budget commission allow a Santa visit to East Providence city hall or the carousel? Will you greet Santa when he visits different places before Christmas? Well the most famous case of a child questioning the validity of Santa Claus was in 1897 when 8 year old Virginia O’Hanlon of New York famously asked that yearning question – is there a Santa Claus? Taking the advice of her father, Virginia posed the question to The Sun, New York’s prominent newspaper at the time. Columnist Francis Church answered Miss O’Hanlon with a response that has become as synonymous with Christmas as the man whose existence was in question.
Virginia’s father, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon suggested that "If you see it in The Sun, it's so," he told his daughter. Editor Francis Church seized upon an opportunity to answer little Virginia’s question and address the more serious philosophical issues behind it. The NY paper printed the letter and response in a less than prominent place in its' paper but the letter received an enormous response from the public. There of course were no computers in those days, but if the internet existed it’s safe to say the “Virginia” letter and response would have gone viral. Over 100 years later it is still one of the most reprinted editorials to run anywhere in the world. The ‘Virginia’ letter has appeared in movies, books, editorials movies and on posters and stamps.
Some have questioned if Virginia O’Hanlon ever really wrote the letter, doubting that some of the phrases in the letter such as “my little friends” was an age appropriate comment. The History Channel, in a special that aired on February 21, 2001, noted that Virginia gave the original letter to a granddaughter, who pasted it in a scrapbook. It was feared that the letter was destroyed in a house fire, but 30 years later, it was discovered intact. Virginia’s letter was authenticated in 1997 by Kathleen Guzman, an appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow. In a July 1997 show, the letter was appraised at a $20,000 to $30,000 value. Here is 8 year old Miss O’Hanlon’s 1897 letter to the New York paper:
“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?”
15 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET
NY Sun reporter Church responded in print with a long and very thoughtful response to young Virginia. It became his most remembered work in print, some 116 years ago.
“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 adult's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours people, in their intellect, as compared with the boundless world about them, are 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 Children! 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 hope! You might get your parents to hire people 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 not proof that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor adults can see. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen in the world.
You may tear apart a baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest adult, nor even the united strength of all the strongest people 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. You must keep that Townie Pride and believe!
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia and you, too, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
And so that famous saying was born, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”. Virginia O’Hanlon believed in Santa Claus until her death in 1971. Little Virginia eventually spent 43 years as an educator. While ill in 1969, Virginia received a visit from Santa Claus in her hospital bed. It was the first time she ever saw Santa in person. After kissing Virginia’s cheek, according to the New York Times, Santa told a reporter “She told me she still believes in Santa Claus.” (see photo)
For me, Christmas has always been a highlight of the year. Christmas Eve was usually hosted by my parents and even though we grew up in a small home in EP, our 'Christmas Eve Open House' was a staple for many family and friends. My mom loved to cook and prepared a buffet table that dazzled. It was mostly Italian with all the side dishes. My Aunt Connie made the Red Velvet and Chocolate Vinegar Cakes to die for. Mom's Christmas trees were famous as she spent days decorating, right down to the hard to find tinsel that she put on every single branch individually. She preferred Douglas Firs because the needles lasted longer. The year she was sick my Dad, brothers and me bought the tree without her. It never made it in the house. "I'm getting dressed and we're returning that ugly, crooked tree right now," she laughed. And we did. Our tradition was to buy the 'perfect' tree from Farmer's Market in Providence and then get Wimpy Skippys and pizza at Caserta's on Federal Hill. My wife, Diane, and I try to keep most of this tradition going today (except for Farmer's Market which is gone) and, yes, I still believe in Santa. At least, the Spirit of Santa. How about you?