Then came the pointed question: “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?"
The letter, written in careful cursive, prompted a response so touching and timeless that it has been shared countless times over the past century — and become its own classic Christmas story.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church anonymously answered in the newspaper. “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."
Over the years, especially during the holiday season, the iconic Christmas editorial has inspired music and movies and stage plays, even a cartoon.
Throughout her life, Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas, a longtime schoolteacher, also spoke about and recited it to other young children, explaining, “The older I get, the more I appreciate its philosophy.”
In 1959, when asked whether she still believed in Santa Claus, the then-70-year-old O’Hanlon told a reporter: “Well, of course I do. Everybody wants to know — particularly at Christmastime — that there’s some kindly person interested in his well-being. It gives a glow to living. Whether it really is a person or a spirit doesn’t really matter very much — does it? Some people say we shouldn’t believe in things we can’t see. This is most unrealistic. Look at all the nice things that have happened to me because of Santa Claus.”
Not long before her death in 1971, she said that she still believed in Saint Nick.
The editorial — which was buried deep on Page 6 of the Sun on Sept. 21, 1897 — has been called “American journalism’s best-known editorial.”
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except 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.
W. Joseph Campbell, a tenured professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, wrote in 2016 for the Newseum that the storied editorial continues to resonate.
“'Is There a Santa Claus?' lives on because it’s such a rarity — an all-around cheery story, one without villains or sinister forces,” he wrote. “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.”
Carrie Christoffersen, executive director and curator of the Newseum, told The Washington Post that, in fact, Church’s editorial is believed to be the most reprinted one of all time. Because dozens of newspapers still reprint it each year, either partially or in full, Christoffersen said it would be impossible to know how many times it has appeared in print.
So why has it endured in this way?
Christoffersen said that the editorial “connects us to a time in the past, filling this nostalgic impulse that so many of us have for a simple time and a simple place, but it also captures what people want the holiday spirit to be.”
Also, she added, “It has a little bit of magic in that it’s a true and honest question from a child” that brings about a “beautiful piece” from a New York newsman.
“It’s a heartfelt analysis that gives you permission to say, ‘Yes, there is a Santa Claus.’ Wouldn’t we all love to believe forever in Santa Claus and the kindness and generosity and joyful spirit that he puts out into the world?” she said.
O’Hanlon Douglas was a lifelong proponent of education.
For decades, the single mother from Manhattan was a teacher in the New York City school system.
She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1912 as well as a doctoral degree from Fordham University in 1930, writing her dissertation on “The Importance of Play.” The abstract read in part:
Upon reflection, it seemed to the writer that not only the happiest memories of her childhood but many of her most abiding interests and small successes had their beginning in play life. While not analyzing this closely, she seemed to feel, or perhaps to hope, that if the children who are deprived of the heritage of play from the land of their fathers, could only be given it back together with some of ours, they might more truly come into their own that they can ever hope to now.
For 43 years, she worked as a teacher and then principal, retiring in 1959, according to comments in her dissertation.
The same year O’Hanlon Douglas died, her childhood home — where she was living when she wrote her storied letter to the Sun — was turned into a school. The Studio School, in Greenwich Village, has created a scholarship in her name.
Over the past 12 decades, the letter has been passed down to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“It is a message of hope to us all … kids and adults,” her great-granddaughter, Sara Rogers Little, told the Arizona Daily Star in 2015.
"Children need time to be kids and should be allowed a time of innocence,” she added. “They should be allowed to believe in the ‘magical’ wonders of life and the world. They should have that time to explore and learn about whatever intrigues them. Adults should never lose that glimmer of hope that wonderful things really do exist.”
Little’s brother, Brock Rogers, who has the letter in a scrapbook, recently told CBS News that he wants his children to learn from it, too.
“As a parent of two young kids, I want them to maintain their innocence for as long as possible,” he told the station, “and the ‘Yes, Virginia’ story, the letter, the response that she got, is a way to do that for them.”