The Legendary Christmastime Curiosity of a Young Irish-American

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 on September 21, 1897. The response by Francis Pharcellus Church, a former Civil War correspondent, has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials ... even on posters and stamps.

Here is Virginia's correspondence to the Sun's editor, followed by his response.  A scan of an original clipping is seen on the right:

DEAR EDITOR: 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?



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.

There was little to be found online about the O'Hanlons, apart from events related to this letter.  Virginia herself went on to become an educator, and her father worked as a coroner.  Maybe one of the members here with the same surname has more details on this legendary family.  I'd love to know if Virginia's parents or grandparents were Irish immigrants, and from which part of Ireland they came. 

Whatever their story, this editor's philosophical answer to a little girl's simple query will certainly put you in the mood to welcome the magic of the season.  Nollaig shona!

Views: 379

Tags: Christmas, United States

Comment by Jim Curley on December 24, 2013 at 9:36am
So much wisdom in Mr. Church's answer.
Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on January 1, 2014 at 1:00pm

Still relevant today.

Comment by Joe Gannon on December 20, 2016 at 9:21am

I did some research on Virginia's family. She was a descendant of Irish immigrants, and ones that had done quite well in America. Her grandfather, Philip J. O'Hanlon (sometimes called O'Houlan) was born in Ireland, as was her grandmother, Julia. Her grandfather's occupation is listed as lawyer, and her father, Philip G., is listed as a "physician and surgeon." In the 1900 census one member of the O'Hanlon household was Irene Comfort, age 24, who is listed as a family servant.


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