In September 1897, Francis Pharcellus Church, a former Civil War correspondent and editor at the New York Sun, received a letter from the then 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon.
In her letter, young Virginia wrote:
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?
115 West Ninety-Fifth Street
Church’s then anonymous editorial page reply eventually became, and remains, a perennial favorite. Translated into dozens of languages (including Latin!), Church’s testament to the spirit of Christmas has the notable distinction of being the "most reprinted newspaper editorial." (http://www.newseum.org/yesvirginia/)
Responding to Virginia's letter, Church celebrates the innocence of childhood and the power of faith:
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 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 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 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. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. 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 world 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.
Virginia was raised on the Upper West Side and was the daughter of a Manhattan physician. As an adult, she went on to pursue a career in education, eventually earning a PhD from Fordham University. According to The New York Times, she was the assistant principal of PS 31 and PS 401, a Brooklyn school “with classes held in ten hospitals and other institutions for chronically ill children.” Throughout her life, Virginia often received inquiries from those curious about her own letter and invitations to read Church’s reply.
In the above 1937 interview, 48-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas talks to WNYC’s Seymour Siegel about her famous letter, her current views on Santa Claus, and her daughter, Laura Virginia.
Unfortunately, the audio quality of this recording is not quite what we're used to. The noise present throughout the interview (and particularly in the first 30 seconds) is likely the result of age, environment, and groove wear. Originally captured on a 16" lacquer disc in 1937, this recording, along with some other choice items, was played many times. Unlike vinyl pressings, a lacquer-coated disc is relatively soft to allow for the cutting stylus on the WNYC record lathe to do its job. As a result, the lacquer disc groove will wear out more quickly than a vinyl or shellac groove. To learn more about the preservation of audio visit the WNYC Preservation and Archive Process page.
It is also interesting to note that in 2006 Virginia’s great-granddaughter brought the original letter to the Antiques Roadshow, where it was appraised at a value of $20,000 - $30,000.
Audio courtesy NYC Municipal Archives collection.