Well over 100 years ago, shortly after her eighth birthday in July, 1897, a young New Yorker named Virginia O'Hanlon put pen to paper in hopes of settling an argument she'd been having with some of her little playmates: Is there in fact a Santa Claus? She sent her brief letter to the New York Sun because, she explained, "Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'"
Weeks passed without response from the newspaper, which apparently misplaced the letter. Young Virginia had just about given up hope. But on September 20, Edward P. Mitchell, the Sun's editor, handed it to veteran writer Francis Pharcellus Church with instructions to craft a reply for the next day's edition. Church had seen the worst of mankind, having covered the Civil War for the New York Times. But the editorial that he crafted conjures man's best angels, which explains why it's the most reprinted editorial ever.
As we try to come to grips with the awful fact that a score of six- and seven-year-olds in Connecticut will never see their eighth birthdays, Church's words have special resonance. "Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus," Church wrote. "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. ... [Without Santa Claus] the eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."
When so many of those individual lights have been snuffed out, it's important to remember the things that give life its "highest beauty and joy" and pull back the "veil covering the unseen world."
Here's Virginia O'Hanlon's original letter:
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 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?
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.
And here, in full, is the unsigned editorial which Church penned:
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.
Thank God indeed.
As the right jolly old elf himself can be heard to exclaim, ere he drives out of sight:
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.