I've been asked if I could give a more detailed account about Virginia O'Hanlon and Francis P. Church, who they were and what eventually happened to them. Mr. Church never did see how far reaching his editorial reply was, except perhaps he noted that it was being re-printed every Christmas in other papers, until finally his newspaper relented and reprinted it. But his careful considerate response to a child's question adds further meaning to the real reason behind why we celebrate Christmas.........
Over a hundred years ago, a little girl by the name of Virginia O’Hanlon had an 8 year old crisis of faith. And through her writing a simple letter it created a force to do good, from educational scholarships, to “Make A Wish” foundation.
But it all started with a little girl named Laura Virginia O’Hanlon, who was born on July 20, 1889 in Manhattan, New York,
When little Virginia (she preferred to be called Virginia) had her 8th birthday in July of 1897, it must have been a very nice birthday, however in September, when she went back to school her school friends must have asked her “What did you do during the Summer” and she must have told them about her birthday and the presents she got--- during that moment she must have said out loud “I wonder what Santa Claus will bring at Christmas?”
Now it must have been a nasty 9 year old boy who told her that Santa Claus doesn’t exist (boys are like that you know—he must have received coal in his stocking from last Christmas) but Virginia believed in Santa Claus and of course she went home crying and must have told her mother, her mother being busy as a mother is may have said “I’m sure Santa does exist” but Virginia wanted it from an authority, and to little girls the best authority or authority figure is Father.
When her Father came home she put the question to him. Virginia’s father Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, was a doctor and worked as an assistant coroner with the New York police dept. on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Both as a doctor and as a coroner he must have seen the very sad and seamy underside of life that he wanted to protect or shield his family and especially his young daughter from those horrors of life.
1897 was also a very skeptical period of time, the Civil war was barely over 33 years pervious and even though 3 decades had passed there were still very hard feelings and loss from that most horrible war.
It had become a skeptical age, many people were no longer believing in God, if a God could do all that harm, then God did not exist, so thought many people.
And it was in this skepital age that Virginia asked her father that very important question.
Dr. O’Hanlon was dumfounded when Virginia tearfully told him what had happened at school. But he was a resourceful man, he knew he didn’t have the words to explain this to her, nor did he want to burst her belief in Santa, but here was an 8 year old child, a little girl, slowly, timidly knocking on adulthoods’ door.
From time to time in Dr. O’Hanlon’s household, if there was any question to be settled Dr. O’Hanlon and other members of his family would write to the Question and Answer dept of the New York Sun Newspaper. And Dr. O’Hanlon had the habit of saying “That if it’s in the Sun, it’s so”. That was how powerful journalism was in those days. So he suggested to Virginia to write to the Sun Newspaper. With that suggestion he unwittingly gave one of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to
rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it.
The Sun was a very lively newspaper in its writing and editorials, and back then The Sun and other newspapers would always write editorial rebuttals to other newspapers, this was a form of rivalry. The Sun remained being published until 1949, only recently was another newspaper publication revived the same name.
Surprisingly Virginia’s letter did not go to the Question and Answer column, it was re-directed to the Publisher of the newspaper a Mr. Mitchell who read it and thought that it would be best to answer it as an editorial and the best man for the job was Francis P. Church.
Francis (Frank) Pharcellus Church was born on February 22, 1839 in Rochester, Monroe, New York. He was the middle son of three boys and one daughter of Baptist minister the Rev. Pharcellus Church and his wife Clara Conant Church.
Francis Ph. Church was descended from founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Following the American Revolution his grandfather, Willard Church, settled in the Lake Ontario region of New York State.
Much of Willard's family later moved to Michigan although Frank's father, Pharcellus, remained in New York. Frank had several summer visits at the Michigan farm of his uncle, Lafayette Church.
Frank's grandfather, Willard, was the progenitor of the New York and Michigan Churches, he died at age 88 while visiting family in Michigan and is buried there in eastern Livingston County. The grandmother, Sarah Davis Church, died and was buried in New York State in 1841.
Frank’s Father, Dr. Pharcellus Church, was from Hopewell Township, New York, and was a Baptist theologian. He had graduated from Hamilton Seminary, now Colgate University, in 1824 and was ordained a Baptist minister the following year. He met his future wife, Clara Conant, in Poultney Vermont where he had his first pastorate. Pharcellus moved his family to Rochester in 1835 where Frank was born four years later.
Frank attended Anthon's Latin School in New York and was graduated with honors from Columbia University in 1858.
Franks siblings were his older sister and brother Emma, and William Conant (in some records known as Marcellus), and his younger sister and brother Sarah J, and John A
Surprisingly his eldest brother William Conant and his younger brother John Adams were better known than Francis, even their Father was of some renown having established a publication on religion.
Francis was no stranger to publishing; the family had well immersed itself into the publishing business. Clara's brother, Sam Conant, edited The National Advocate, later formed into The New York Herald.
Francis’s father, Pharcellus Church purchased The New York Chronicle, a religious weekly. Francis Ph. was an editorial writer on The Chronicle. His father, Pharcellus remained a life-long friend of Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, whom he met in Vermont where Greeley was setting type in a local office. Another friend, George Jones, helped found The New York Times.
Possibly through this connection Frank, now in his 20s, reported the Civil War for The Times. His brother, William, served as a colonel in the Union Army.
Although trained in law, following the war Frank established with his brother William The Army and Navy Journal (still being published) and The Internal Revenue Record.
They also created and edited Galaxy, a magazine of fiction and essays whose contributors included such literary lights as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. It later merged into The Atlantic Monthly.
After giving up these publications, Francis Ph. Church remained on their boards of directors. .
Younger brother John Adams became a famous mining engineer and later in life was at Tombstone, Arizona at the time of the gunfight at the O.K.Corrall.
Francis joined the The Sun newspaper in 1874 was still an editor in 1897 at the Sun and was frequently handed any assignments that dealt with theology. Because of his life experience Francis P. Church was a sardonic personality and had no time for “fluff or flummery”. His was a logical type of thinking and he, like many others had been affected by the loss of humanity from the Civil War.
His younger brother John Adam in his book "Descendants of Richard Church of Plymouth, Mass.", described his older brother Francis as a person of “a delicate and lively imagination, a style of great purity, and he found the position of editorial writer one in which every sort of human conduct, experience and ideal may come in review… He discussed religious questions with a sincerity of feeling and strength of idealism...”
In an article written by a contemporary upon Francis death wrote “…. His specialty, one may perhaps say, was the discussion of religious, or rather of theological, topics from a secular point of view. To very many readers his treatment of these topics seemed far too sardonic and cold-blooded. But they showed a determination on the part of the writer “to examine and refine those grosser propositions which laziness and consent make current in common conversation," and they showed a determination to be nobody's dupe, not even his own. He might have taken for his own motto, "Endeavor to clear your mind of cant." And, by living up to it, he did in many cases clear also the minds of his readers. This was an important piece of public service.”
And this was the man that Mitchell handed the letter to. Church at first refused it, thinking it some sort of joke, but Mitchell said it wasn’t a joke, so with great resignation Church took the letter and began to work an editorial about it.
What he created was a 500 word editorial masterpiece for its day and it added to the idea of Santa Claus as being a spirit of belief and faith in a skeptical age.
In reading little Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter, Church realized that here was a child who was approaching adulthood. To just say yes Santa exists would not be enough, he had to explain what Santa was, in a way that was acceptable to children and also wake up the minds of adults to have “goodness, compassion and love” in their hearts.
Church realized that concept of Santa was bigger than a grown up, that this was a question of faith in times of adversity.
Something inspired Francis P. Church, a man that had no time for “fluff” or foolishness, something that made him dig deep into his soul to create such a masterful editorial.
Now this editorial did not run in December of 1897 but in September of that year and was the 7th of 12 editorials that ran on page 10 of the Sun. But there was something about it that captured the minds, hearts and spirits of the reading public.
Most of the time when any newspaper ran an editorial, especially about a controversial subject other newspapers would do editorial rebuttals---but this editorial about Santa Claus, not one newspaper dared to write a rebuttal.
It was the Sun’s policy to not give any editorial credit but have it as a Sun Newspaper response; no one knew that Francis P. Church wrote it. The Sun never republished it although there was great demand, finally 6 years after The Sun did, still not crediting Church---when it was republished it was with this snippy phrase “…that perhaps people’s scrapbooks were wearing out.”
In 1898 Church married Elizabeth Wickham, but had no children and continued writing at the Sun until several months before his death, he died in April 1906 after an illness of 3 months, at the age of 67 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Besides being a news correspondent, publisher, editor and editorial writer, Church also wrote several books, one about U.S. Grant.
So great was his loss felt that the Sun took a remarkable step and announced that Church was the author of “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” and the following December the Sun started re-printing the editorial on an annual basis, many other newspapers followed suit. As a matter of fact other newspapers had started re-printing it when the Sun didn’t.
The letter that little Virginia sent was mailed back to her by an assistant editor and is preserved along with the original editorial by the grandchildren of Virginia O’Hanlon.
What happened to little Virginia---well as all children she grew up, she had her own personal up’s and downs, she went to college receiving her Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College in 1910, a Master's degree in education from Columbia University in 1912. She was a school teacher in the New York City school system. After earning her doctorate from Fordham University she became a principal at a school for handicapped children in 1935. She started her career as an educator in 1912, and retired in 1959.
She married for a short time in the 1910’s but her husband Edward Douglas deserted her before the birth of her daughter. In the 1930’s her daughter, Laura Temple worked for two years in the advertising department office at The Sun. “They all knew who I was,” her daughter was quoted years as saying about the Sun staff. “And we all had the same feeling about the editorial that my mother had—that it was a classic.”
In a 1930’s census Virginia was listed as being divorced, she never remarried. She was an educator for 47 years.
During her adult life she received many letters about that remarkable question and she answered every single one and included a beautifully printed copy of the letter and the editorial reply. In an interview later in life, she credited it with shaping the direction of her life quite positively. Virginia received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her life. The editorial, she told an interviewer in 1959, when she was 67, “gave me a special place in life I didn’t deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial and to try to make glad the heart of childhood.” She occasionally read the editorial at Christmas programs, as she did in 1933 and 1937 at Hunter College, her alma mater.
At her retirement in 1959, the New York Times observed that Virginia was “one of those rare persons whose given name alone has instant meaning for millions.” In December 1960, Virginia went on the Perry Como Show and said she had lived “a wonderfully full life.” She told Como in a brief interview that her letter to the Sun had been “answered for me thousands of times.”
But as all little girls they grow up, grow old and sadly die, Virginia died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81 in a nursing home in Valatie, New York. She is buried at the Chatham Rural Cemetery in North Chatham, New York, near Rochester, New York.
Her death was reported on the front page of the New York Times beneath the headline: “Virginia O’Hanlon, Santa’s friend, dies.”
At the approach of Christmas in recent years, the North Chatham Historical Society has conducted a reading at Virginia’s gravesite of the letter that brought her fame and of the editorial that it inspired. And every year, Virginia's letter and Church's response are read at the Yule Log ceremony at Church's alma mater, Columbia College of Columbia University.
Some people have questioned the veracity of that remarkable letter's authorship, expressing doubt that a young girl such as Virginia would refer to children her own age as "my little friends".
And it was feared that the letter she wrote was destroyed in a house fire, which could refute those doubts, however some years later it was found safe and sound, and the original letter appeared and was authenticated in 1998 on Antiques Road Show, by Kathleen Guzman, an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow, at $20,000–$30,000 for its remarkableness, but even the antique appraiser conceded that the real value of the letter was priceless.
The brownstone house that Virginia lived when she wrote the letter suffered a fire some years later and at the time was considered too badly gone to be preserved. It's true that it was badly deteriorated, but later upon further inspection, it was considered savable, a New York Times News article, did a story that a college prep private school, the Studio School, did a major fund raising effort and bought Virginia’s home and the house next to it. Had it repaired and restored---joined the two buildings together and made it into their permanent home for their school.
The principal said that it was very interesting that the school was founded the same year that Virginia O'Hanlon passed away, 1971----that Virginia was a school teacher for 47 years and now her old home is going to be a school---it is only right and a proper fitting end to the story.
The school put up a memorial plaque commemorating the event of the "Yes Virginia" letter. In 2009, The Studio School in New York City, honored Virginia's life and legacy. Janet C. Rotter, Head of School, announced the establishment of the Virginia O'Hanlon Scholarship, speaking passionately about their commitment to offering need-based scholarships for students of merit.
And Virginia’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue, in various ways to honor her legacy.
As I said a right and proper fitting happy ending to little Virginia's story.
But for us adults it’s better that Virginia always be an 8 year old child in a Victorian skeptical age that asked a simple innocent question to be answered by a man who has seen too many disillusions in life. In doing so it has given them both immortality and it is, perhaps the best description of the true meaning and idea of “Santa Claus” and Christmas.
So without further adieu I give you
“YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS”
Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter
to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick
response was printed as an unsigned editorial
Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman
Francis Pharcellus Church has since become
history's most reprinted newspaper editorial,
appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages
in books, movies, and other editorials, and on
posters and stamps.
"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa
"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 [what] 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
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 you Virginia and Mr. Church.