September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
The Big Question
As autumn fell on New York City, Laura Virginia O’Hanlon wrestled with a crisis of faith. The cherished beliefs of a lifetime were crumbling before her, and she did not know where to turn. It was an innocent age, one in which newspaper editors were considered moral authorities. So a worried Virginia (as she was called) took her concerns to the New York Sun .
“Dear Editor,” she wrote. “I am eight 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?”
As her letter reveals, Virginia had initially taken the question to her father, who, in the time-honored fashion of fathers everywhere, told her to go ask someone else. When her inquiry arrived at the Sun , it got passed around until finally it reached the desk of an obscure editorial writer named Francis Pharcellus Church. On September 27 the Sun published Virginia’s letter and Church’s classic reply.
Church was known around the Sun for his sardonic nature, but the child’s guileless inquiry seems to have melted his grown-up cynicism. With eloquence that may have been lost on little Virginia, Church decried the simplicity of modern-day skeptics: “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.” Then Church got to the heart of the matter, with a line that has been repeated and parodied thousands upon thousands of times in the century since: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”
Church continued by appealing to a transcendent reality beyond what can be perceived: “Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there.” Or more convincingly: “There is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man … could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond.”
The editorial was unsigned, and Church’s role as author was not revealed until after his death in 1906. The Sun reprinted the piece annually at Christmastime until it went out of business in 1950. By that time little Virginia had grown up to be the principal of an elementary school on New York City’s Lower East Side, where she made sure that her students, most of them Jewish, celebrated a secular Christmas, complete with carols, a tree, and, of course, a man in a Santa Claus suit.