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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

"Is There a Santa Claus?" was the headline that appeared over an editorial in the September 20, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. The editorial, which included the response of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus", has become an indelible part of popular Christmas lore in the United States.

History

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner's assistant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia (1889-1971), whether Santa Claus really existed. Virginia had begun to doubt there was a Santa Claus, because her friends had told her that he did not exist.

Dr. O’Hanlon suggested she write to the New York Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that "If you see it in The Sun, its so." While he may have been passing the buck, he unwittingly gave one of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to rise above the simple question, and address the philosophical issues behind it.

Church was a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time which saw great suffering and a corresponding lack of hope and faith in much of society. Although the paper ran the editorial in the seventh place on the editorial page, below even an editorial on the newly invented "chainless bicycle", its message was very moving to many people who read it. More than a century later it remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

In 1972, after seeing Virginia O'Hanlon's obituary in the New York Times, four friends formed a company called Elizabeth Press and published a children's book titled Yes, Virginia that illustrated the editorial and included a brief history of the main characters. The book's creators took the book to Warner Brothers who eventually did the Emmy award-winning Television show based on the editorial. 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 thirty years after the fire, it was discovered intact.

Some people have questioned the veracity of the letter's authorship, expressing doubt that a young girl such as Virginia would refer to children her own age as "my little friends". However, the original copy of the letter appeared and was authenticated by an appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow in 1998. Its value was appraised by Kathleen Guzman, formerly of Christie's - now with PBS' Antiques Roadshow - at approximately $50,000.

Interestingly enough, when the editorial is reproduced today, it often omits more than half of Church's original response. One paragraph that is not often repeated begins, "Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies."

Virginia O'Hanlon's full name is Laura Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas. She was born on July 20, 1889 in Manhattan, New York. She was married to Edward Douglas and was listed as divorced in the 1930 United States Census. Her marriage to Douglas was brief and ended with him deserting her shortly before their child, Laura, was born.

Virginia received her Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College in 1910; a Master's degree in Education from Columbia University in 1912, and a doctorate from Fordham University. Virginia was a school teacher in the New York City School system. She started her career as an educator in 1912, became a junior principal in 1935, and retired in 1959.

Virginia died on May 13, 1971 in a nursing home in Valatie, New York. She is buried at the Chatham Rural Cemetery in Chatham, New York.

Every year, Virginia's letter and Church's response are read at the Yule Log ceremony at Church's alma mater, Columbia College of Columbia University.

The story of Virginia's inquiry and the Sun's response was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning animated television special in 1974, animated by Bill Meléndez (best known for his work on the various Peanuts specials) and featuring the voices of Jim Backus and Jimmy Osmond, and in 1991 it was adapted into a made-for-TV movie with Ed Asner and Charles Bronson. In New York City, local television journalist Gabe Pressman has recounted the story each Christmas for the past thirty years.

Virginia O’Hanlon received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her life. She would include a copy of the editorial in her replies. In an interview later in life, she credited the editorial with shaping the direction of her life quite positively.

References in popular culture

  • The Dresden Dolls used Yes, Virginia... as the title of their second album. The story of Virginia and the New York Sun article is also referenced by the track "Mrs. O". The Dresden Doll's 2008 compilation album, No, Virginia... featured a dead Santa Claus on the cover as a humorous reference to its namesake.
  • Weird Al Yankovic used the line "Yes, Virginia, now Santa's doing time" in his Christmas parody, "The Night Santa Went Crazy". These lyrics were changed to "Yes, Virginia, now Santa Claus is dead" for the "Extra Gory Version".
  • In Season 1 Episode 5 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Detective Munch expounds "Yes, Santa, there is a Virginia" when the missing person of interest Virginia Hayes is found in Grand Central Station.
  • In the TV show Veronica Mars, the tenth episode of the first season ends with the line "No Veronica, there is no Santa Claus"
  • In his book Liberwocky, Victor Gold includes a parody of the editorial, listing reasons why Santa Claus is "wanted" by the U.S. government.
  • Season 4 episode 14 of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, is an episode titled "Yes Virginia, there is a Hercules". At the end of this episode it is revealed that Kevin Sorbo (the actor who portrays Hercules in the show) is in fact Hercules, and exists in the present day.
  • In Season 2 Episode 13 ("Strangled") of "Crossing Jordan," Dr. Nigel Townsand, criminologist, exclaims: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!" after he hears some good news.
  • In 1950 Wolcott Gibbs of The New Yorker wrote a satirical version of the Church letter, parodying the style of Westbrook Pegler, and depicting Santa Claus as an old communist and union racketeer also known as Comrade Jelly Belly.

See also

Bibliography

  • American National Biography. "Virginia O'Hanlon". V. 16. 1999. p.645-646.

References and notes

  • Thomas Vinciguerra "Yes, Virginia, A Thousand Times Yes". The Week in Review. The New York Times, .

External links

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