"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.
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.
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.