Originally published on December 24, 2021.
By Carol Tannenhauser
“Virginia,” as in, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” was an eight-year-old girl from the Upper West Side.
In 1897, Virginia O’Hanlon lived with her mother, Laura, and her father, Philip O’Hanlon, a surgeon and deputy coroner, at 115 West 95th Street, according to several sources, including the Baltimore Sun and The New York Times. A few months before Christmas, Virginia asked her father if there really is a Santa Claus. He passed the buck to the New York Sun, a popular newspaper of the day, prompting Virginia to (allegedly) write a letter:
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 W. 95th Street
The letter landed in the hands of Francis Pharcellus Church, an atheist and former Civil War correspondent, who answered it in what would become, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the #1 most unforgettable editorial of all time, “a masterpiece of decisiveness.” Here it is in its entirety:
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.
Virginia grew up and went to Hunter College, then Columbia and Fordham Universities, earning a Doctorate in Education, becoming a teacher and principal in the New York City school system for 47 years. She died in 1971, the same year a private school, named The Studio School, opened in the West Village. In 2007, after occupying several other UWS locations, it moved into the townhouse on West 95th Street where Virginia had lived. On its website, the school called it “a remarkable coincidence…A full circle, indeed.” It has established a scholarship “to honor the legacy of Virginia O’Hanlon and spark curiosity in children at the school where Virginia penned her famous letter.”