He is a figure known the world over, an endorsement for gift giving, the winter holiday season, and cookie eating. At times he is called Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, or Kris Kringle and is arguably the most famous heavyset celebrity – well at least to precede Elvis Presley. Yes, he is the lovable, enduring, and jolly old chap we call Santa Claus. In 1897 one little girl from Manhattan, at the urging of her father, took it upon herself to ask the New York Sun Newspaper once and for all if the man in the red suit was the real deal.
Countless numbers of letters are written to newspapers all around the world each year, and few if any will ever see a moment of fame beyond the readership of their respective dailies. However, over a hundred years ago a simple letter comprised only the words, “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?” would go on to become one of the most enduring symbols of North America’s take on Christmas.
One day in September 1897 (historians speculate that the question arose not in December as one might expect, but in September, because this would have been shortly after the new school year had commenced and children would have already been turning their attention to Christmas) young Virginia O’Hanlon approached her father, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon (who worked for a coroner’s office), with the sort of innocence only the very young are able to possess. She likely asked in a small but inquisitive voice if the rumors of her school chums were correct, was Santa Claus fake? Now not knowing for sure how tense the air got in the room at that moment when Mr. O’Hanlon’s only child asked him to debunk or concur with the tale of St. Nick, we can only assume that he did not have the heart to break the truth to her himself. And so the letter (and its reply) that would go to become almost as much a symbol of the Christmas season as Santa himself was born.
Off Virginia went to write a letter at her father’s suggestion, which she mailed herself, to the New York Sun newspaper where its answer was assigned to an ex-civil war correspondent turned newspaper editorial writer by the name of Francis Pharcellus Church. The story has it that Mr. Church was not exactly jumping for joy at the assignment, but he took the child’s letter back to his desk and proceeded to write one of the most stirring tributes to Christmas that has ever graced the pages of any newspaper.
Perhaps it was the atrocities of war he had witnessed firsthand, perhaps it was his own desire to believe in Father Christmas, or perhaps it was exactly what he would have said had anyone asked him if Santa was real, but that day Francis Church wrote an earnest, dramatic and nearly poetic response to Miss O’Hanlon’s query. In no short terms, he assured her that indeed Santa Claus, or at the very least the unshakable spirit and message of Saint Nicholas’s image were as real as anything else on earth.
Though at the time it ran in the New York Sun it was but the seventh editorial on its page, this candid, lively, and touching response would go on to find its way into the hearts and Christmases of millions of people, spanning many generations since the 1890s. In fact, both the letter and its answer are reprinted in oodles of newspapers around the globe every year, a modern tribute and testimony to Virginia’s, Francis Church’s and Santa Claus’s contribution to the timeless beauty, wonder, and magic of Christmas.