By Tim Nerozzi
It was an unusual question: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” asked the letter sent by eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon to the New York Sun in 1897.
“It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in The Sun,” O’Hanlon recalled as an adult. “Father would always say, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so,’ and that settled the matter.”
The answer she received has been celebrated ever since for its beautiful prose and enduring outlook on the unseen wonders of our world. Less appreciated is the fact that the response, “Is there a Santa Claus?” is a profound philosophical discussion on what it is to be “real.”
Its writer, Francis Pharcellus Church, was by all accounts a devout skeptic and atheist. His time decades earlier covering the bloody Civil War had left him jaded and uninterested in humoring what he saw as fantastical delusions in the realms of theology and superstition.
This characterization of Church is what makes his response to O’Hanlon so jarring.
“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?” asked Church. “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.”
Church, in his response, in no way defended the idea of a human being delivering presents into the stockings of all children in the world over the course of just one night. Instead, he drew attention to just how real Santa was as a phenomenon. Just because we cannot pin him down or catch a glimpse of him taking off from the rooftops, Church argued didn’t make him any less real than the most concrete objects in front of us. It would therefore not only be pointless but a mistake, to question and scrutinize where the magic comes from on Christmas day.
“You 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, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”
“Is there a Santa Claus?” went on to become the single most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language. The article is reprinted across the world during the holiday season as a loving reminder of the intangible yet inarguably real love and wonder brought from Saint Nicholas.
The real-life Virginia O’Hanlon embraced the cultural importance of her childhood letter, though she tended to shy from the public spotlight. She was the frequent recipient of letters from both children and adults on the subject of Santa Claus and made efforts to respond to as many as possible.
O’Hanlon died in 1971 after a lifetime as an educator and school principal. Her death reinvigorated the story of her childhood letter.
The editorial was featured as a segment in the Emmy award-winning short film “Santa Claus” story in 1945, a TV movie in 1991, a successful musical, and most recently a 2010 television special starring Neil Patrick Harris.
An animated version of O’Hanlon appeared from 2009 to 2015 in the Macy’s Holiday Parade.
“Is there a Santa Claus?” has been translated into dozens of languages across the globe, including professional or amateur adaptions into French, Japanese, and Bulgarian.
Read the original, archived editorial on the New York Sun website.
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