By W. Joseph Campbell
American journalism’s best-known editorial, a timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit, marked its 119th anniversary this year.
The editorial was published beneath the headline “Is There a Santa Claus?” in 1897 in the New York Sun, a gray but lively newspaper that began as a penny paper in 1833. The editorial’s author was Francis Pharcellus Church, a veteran journalist who was assigned to write a reply to a letter from an 8-year-old named Virginia O’Hanlon.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus,” Virginia had written. “Papa says ‘if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong,” Church replied. “They have been afflicted by the skepticism of a skeptical age.”
A few sentences later, Church invoked the editorial’s most memorable passages: “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.”
“Is There a Santa Claus?” was given an obscure place in the Sun, in the third of three columns of editorials on Sept. 21, 1897. It was oddly timed, too — an editorial about Santa Claus appearing in September, three months before Christmas.
But over the years, the editorial became a classic in American journalism, and easily the most memorable item ever published in the Sun. That venerable newspaper folded in January 1950.
The Sun remained a storied name in American journalism, and the name was revived in April 2002 by owners of a new conservative-oriented daily in New York. The resurrected Sun laid claim to its predecessor’s legacy, adopting its logo — which proclaimed the Sun “shines for all” — and its elaborate nameplate.
“Yes, Virginia,” the Associated Press said of the new newspaper, “there is a New York Sun again.”
The new Sun lasted just six, money-losing years in New York’s hypercompetitive media market and published its final issue on Sept. 30, 2008. Thus, “Is There a Santa Claus?” outlived two incarnations of its natal newspaper.
So what explains such longevity? Why is the editorial so endlessly appealing?
Several answers offer themselves.
“Is There a Santa Claus?” lives on because it’s such a rarity — an all-around cheery story, one without villains or sinister forces.
For many adults, the editorial stirs memories of Christmases past, when they, too, were young believers.
The editorial also offers a connection to a time quite different from ours, a time before jet aircraft, television and the Internet. It is somehow reassuring to know that what was engaging in 1897 remains appealing now.
The editorial lives on as a reminder of the lyrical heights that journalism, on occasion, can reach.
Joseph Campbell, a former Newseum scholar, is a tenured professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, including “Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misrepresented Stories in American Journalism” and “The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms,” in which the story of “Is There a Santa Claus?” is told.