The Myths of 'Yes, Virginia'
The most famous editorial in American journalism was published 110 years ago in The (New York) Sun, as a reply to a letter from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon.
The editorial was titled "Is There a Santa Claus?" and its most memorable passage was this reassuring declaration: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
Since the editorial’s first publication in 1897, a fair amount of myth and misunderstanding have surrounded it. One common belief is that "Is There a Santa Claus?" was an immediate hit and was enthusiastically reprinted in The Sun every year until the newspaper folded in 1950.
In fact, The Sun republished the editorial just twice in the 10 years immediately following its initial publication. And when it did reprint the editorial, The Sun was a bit snippy about it, saying on one occasion: "Scrapbooks seem to be wearing out."
But readers’ persistence eventually won out. Over the years, thousands wrote to The Sun, imploring the editors to reprint the editorial. Finally, some 25 years after its first appearance, "Is There a Santa Claus?" began appearing regularly every Dec. 23 or 24.
Another myth lies in the editorial’s inspiration.
The Sun first published the editorial on Sept. 21, 1897. Many historians have assumed that Virginia wrote her letter that month, as the school year began in New York City. They believed that schoolmates had teased Virginia about believing in Santa Claus, which prompted her to ask The Sun: "Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?"
New research suggests Virginia wrote and mailed her letter in July 1897, shortly after her eighth birthday, but The Sun misplaced or overlooked it for several weeks. Virginia told relatives years later that she waited and waited for a reply and had given up by the time the editorial was finally published. The Sun’s editor later said the editorial was written in less than a day by a self-effacing journalist named Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer at The Sun.
Virginia also recalled that after the birthdays of her childhood, she would wonder constantly about what gifts Santa Claus would bring her in December. So it was the anticipation and excitement of a young girl, writing soon after her summertime birthday, that inspired what has become American journalism’s classic editorial.
Campbell, a Newseum researcher and scholar, discusses the back story of "Is There a Santa Claus" in his book "The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms" (Routledge, 2006).
Collage: From left: Virginia O’Hanlon, c. 1897 (Courtesy James Temple), editorial writer Francis P. Church (The Century Association Archives Foundation) and the start of Church’s famous editorial (Newseum collection).