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Readers Behind 'Is there a Santa Claus?' Editorial's Long Life

By Maggie Barrett

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."  The sentence, from American journalism’s best-known editorial, the New York Sun’s "Is There A Santa Claus?",  is so popular that 111 years after it first appeared in print, a major American retailer is using it as the basis for its 2008 holiday advertising campaign.

Most people assume the editorial was an immediate hit when first published in 1897 and that the Sun enthusiastically reprinted it every year at Christmastime until the newspaper folded in 1950.  Not true, according to W. Joseph Campbell, a professor of journalism at American University.

“Readers, not newspaper editors, helped make sure ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ lived on,” Campbell said.  

Campbell attributes the editorial’s enduring appeal among readers to four main traits:

  • It offers a connection to another, distant time.  It is somehow reassuring to know that what was charming and appealing in 1897 remains charming and appealing today.
  • It is a cheery, reaffirming story: one without villains or sinister elements.
  • The editorial reminds adults about Christmases past and a time when they, too, were believers.
  • It has been a way over the years for parents to address childrens skepticism about Santa Claus without necessarily having to fib about his existence. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question.

The editorial first appeared in September 1897 in response to an 8-year-old girl’s inquiry about the existence of Santa Claus. Its most memorable lines are: "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."

Campbell, whose research about the editorial’s publishing history  won him the American Journalism Historian Association’s top faculty research award in 2004, said the Sun  was slow and hesitant in embracing "Is There A Santa Claus?," and did not regularly run the Christmastime editorial until the 1920s.

"Before the 20s, it was reprinted only sporadically," Campbell said. "The Sun’s hesitant embrace probably stemmed from the newspaper’s disinclination to promote its journalists as star reporters or celebrities."

Readers repeatedly asked the Sun to republish the editorial and in the end, they prevailed, according to Campbell’s research. Campbell also reported that the editorial’s odd timing—published three months before Christmas in 1897—is best explained by the anticipation and excitement of Virginia O’Hanlon, the little girl whose letter prompted the Sun’s editorial. Years after the editorial was first published, O’Hanlon recalled that as a child, she began wondering at the time of her July birthday in 1897 what gifts she would receive at Christmas. Her anticipation led her to write to the Sun later that summer.

But, for several weeks, the newspaper apparently ignored or misplaced OHanlon’s letter, which implored: "Please tell me the truth. Is There A Santa Claus?"  O’Hanlon said that weeks went by before the Sun replied with its famous editorial, which the Sun’s editor said was written in less than a day by Francis P. Church.

"The explanation that reconciles those two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait for an answer and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time ignored or misplaced the letter that inspired American journalism’s iconic editorial," Campbell said.

Cambell’s research, which offers a fuller, more accurate understanding of the famous editorial, is important for several reasons.

"For one, it offers a reminder that newspaper editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying and calling attention to journalism of significance and lasting value," Campbell said.

The details behind "Is There A Santa Claus?" also provide a reminder about the importance of treating cautiously the accepted wisdom about U.S. journalism of the late 1890s.  Studies have shown that popular understanding of the period is distorted by myths. For example, the notion that the Sun’s yellow press rivals in New York City incited the Spanish-American War of 1898. The anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to 'furnish the war' with Spain—supposedly made in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington who was on assignment in Cuba in 1897—is acknowledged by scholars like Campbell as most certainly fictional.  Yet among the greater population, thoughts that the tale is true endure.

"The notion that the Sun enthusiastically embraced 'Is There A Santa Claus?'—and that the editorial was an immediate success—are other, if modest, examples of the errors that distort the understanding of a defining period in U.S. journalism history," Campbell said.

Campbell wrote an article about the editorial for the Web site of the Newseum, the interactive museum of news in Washington, D.C.  He will deliver a gallery talk about the editorial at the Newseum at 3 p.m. on Saturday, December 20.

Campbell is an associate professor at American University's School of Communication. He is the author of the books Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (Praeger, 2001) and The Year That Defined American Journalism (Routledge, 2006).