“Yes Virginia, there is Santa Claus!”—remembering Francis Church and the little child in Virginia O’Hanlon

by

For me, one of the best written lores about Christmas was the editorial written by Francis Pharcellus Church, which came out on September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun for the little 8-year old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon (1889-1971.)

A mature seasoned reporter and son of a Baptist minister who wrote for newspapers during the Civil War, Francis saw how people suffered because of the dearth of optimism and the usualness of alienation in society. The question he received from Virginia about Santa Claus by mail and his well-thought reply hugged the imagination of those who read them.

“Thirty-six years after her letter was printed, Virginia O’Hanlon recalled the events that prompted her letter: “Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn’t any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.”
http://www.nationalchristmascenter.com/exhibits/htm/yesvirginia.htm

Born in Manhattan, Virginia was the daughter of an Upper Eastside assistant coroner. Her complete name was Laura Virginia O’Hanlon and she lived a life of the regular kid of her time at 115 West, 95th Street. She grew up to be an accomplished teacher with a BA (1910) and MA (1912) education from Hunter College and Columbia University respectively.

During her life, countless letters found their way in her mailbox asking about Santa Claus and her unexpected fame. To eager fans, she recounted how her story influenced her life in a wholesome way. Having briefly married with one child, she in old age lived in a nursing home after her retirement from decades of teaching. She passed away on May 17, 1971 at the age of 81 and was interred in a quiet rural burial ground in Chatham, New York. The newspaper New York Sun folded up in 1949. The original letter she sent the newspaper was pasted in a scrapbook which her relatives keep till this day.

I had some emotional reaction banging on my chest each time I read the immortal correspondence of Francis and Virginia. I had memories of how I regarded Christmas as a boy. The idea that the world would be so dreary if there was no Santa Claus because of skepticism made me panicky. The stockings I placed behind the yuletide tree at home for Santa was so real. There was the off-tune Christmas carol about Santa that I sang for our next-door neighbor. It earned me less than a dime, but nonetheless made me very happy. Attendance to the pre-Christmas midnight mass and watching the nativity scene were as gratifying as the long waits I did for the dawn break-ins of the mysterious bearded man with gifts for children from a magical sleigh.

Time was benevolent on Virginia. It transformed her 64 million dollar query and Francis’ answer into a masterpiece, perhaps the most endearing Christmas editorial ever written in America.

From her moving story came the beloved quip “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” All children of the world must have asked their fathers and mothers like Virginia before their fleeting periods of innocence pass by. More than a hundred years went and the whole world still struggles with cynicism, self-doubt, and materialism. People continue to dig what true Christmas really means for all of us. (Photo Credit: Andy_Atsaka; wwww.peteyandpetunia.com; http://www.nationalchristmascenter.com; Karen Navarro/ AP; Andy_Atsaka; Manuel Silvestre/ AP ; Scott Feldstein) =0=

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