Ask editorial writers what they want for Christmas, and some of them will dutifully say world peace. But in their secret hearts they may covet a less laudable gift: a really memorable editorial. One that people will notice. One that might have been said to go viral back when going viral was a good thing. An editorial so noteworthy that it pierces the editorial writer's traditional veil of anonymity.
An editorial, in other words, like the one written in 1897 for the New York Sun by Francis Pharcellus Church and known for all time for the line, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Church wrote thousands of editorials for the Sun. To calculate the percentage that live in the national memory would require a decimal point and a couple of zeros.
Church reportedly grumbled at the assignment when, in his late 50s, he was handed a plaintive letter from an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon. She had asked her father whether there really was a Santa Claus, and her father had suggested that she write a letter to the editor. (The father's parenting skills are a subject for another day.)
The letter had found its way to Church's editor, and from there to Church's desk. The prospect of crafting an editorial reply might have made Church long for the good old days when he served as a war correspondent.
Virginia was a real person but her letter contains notes that sound inauthentic, at least to our modern ears. "I am 8 years old," it begins. "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus." The next time you hear an 8-year-old refer to her peer group as "my little friends," let us know, because we're not buying it. Nor do we accept at face value the next line, which sounds like ad copy: "Papa says if you see it in THE SUN, it's so."
Church replied to Virginia that her friends had been afflicted with "the skepticism of a skeptical age," which probably applies to us as well. "Not believe in Santa Claus!" he exclaimed. "You might as well not believe in fairies!"
Using fairies to prove the existence of Santa is begging the question, but Church was on a roll. "Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus," he ventured. "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."
Most editorials are as ephemeral as those fairies dancing on the lawn. Church's piece, by contrast, has become a permanent part of the holiday canon, coming back to life as regularly as Marley's ghost. It has gone down in history as the most-reprinted editorial in the life of the English language, and we've added to that record below. Remarkably, it is still talked about 124 years after its publication.
Francis Church died in 1906. The Sun stopped publishing in 1950. Virginia O'Hanlon died in 1971. And Santa? "He lives, and he lives forever," wrote Church. And he knew a thing or two about living forever.
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.
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.