September 21, 1897.
A man named Francis Pharcellus Church arrived to work at The New York Sun, one of the nation’s leading newspapers at the time. As the paper’s head editorial writer, Church no doubt assumed he’d be writing about the dominant news stories of the day. The Klondike Gold Rush had begun earlier that summer, driving thousands of prospectors to Canada and Alaska. The country’s first subway had just opened in Boston. Overseas, Greece and Turkey had signed a treaty to end the Greco-Turkish War.
But a different sort of assignment waited for him that morning – perhaps the most unusual of his career. Church’s task, his editor explained, was to answer a letter from an eight-year-old girl. A letter about Santa Claus.
I am eight 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?
At first, Church balked at the assignment. He was a hardened newspaperman and a former war correspondent. Indeed, most of his colleagues described him as something of a cynic. Naturally, he refused. But his editor insisted. Young Virginia’s letter had been languishing in The Sun’s to-do pile for months already. So, Church took another look at Virginia’s simple-but-heartfelt plea. He pondered it for the rest of the day. And then he began to write.
You can probably guess what happened next. But before we get to Church’s actual response, think for a moment of how easy it would have been for Church to write something simple and banal. Something like, Of course, there’s a Santa Claus, Virginia, listen to your parents. Or, Yes, there’s a Santa, but he only gives presents to good girls, so make sure you’re really good this year!
But instead, Church took the opportunity to re-examine his own cynicism. As a result, he penned words that have since been passed down from generation to generation. Words that get right to the heart of why Christmas is so magical.
Here is what he said:
Is There a Santa Claus?
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. 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, 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 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. 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 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, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
At first, no one took notice of Church’s editorial, as it was buried on page seven, right below the advertisements. No one, that is, except Virginia, who checked the paper every day for months waiting for a response. And it was exactly the response she needed. It affirmed to her that there is something magical about Christmas, about life, that can never be seen but can always be felt – by children and those
who remain childlike in their hearts. She shared that knowledge all her days, as a mother and a teacher for children with disabilities. As she put it in an interview many decades later, “It brought into my life many, many interesting and kind things that I don’t think would have been there.”
But it didn’t just change Virginia’s life. Soon, the editorial began getting passed around. Readers asked the Sun to reprint it every year. Now, the phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” is legendary.
Every December, we often feel tired, stressed, and even a bit cynical about the holiday. But then we remember what Christmas meant to us as children. We remember the warmth we felt. The cheer. The magic. And despite our cares, we do everything we can to keep Christmas magical – for ourselves, our children, and their children after us. Because we remember the truth Church so eloquently captured:
Of course, there’s a Santa Claus. He exists just as love and generosity, and devotion exist. And he always will.
I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy rest of the Holiday season!