It’s probably the most reprinted newspaper editorial in American history, written over 120 years ago. Francis P. Church responded to a question from an 8-year-old who wanted to know if Santa Claus was real, writing famously, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” And the spirit of the letter lives on in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The answer to Virginia O’Hanlon’s question was published in the New York Sun in 1897. According to historian W. Joseph Campbell, the newspaper was small but scrappy. And Francis P. Church was just a workaday editorial writer.
“He was a reticent, retiring guy,” Campbell says. “He certainly was no self-promoter. So it’s kind of ironic that Church is one of the very few editorial writers to become known for one of his essays.”
There are lots of ironies to the fact that Church ended up with the assignment. He had no kids and was known as a skeptic and a curmudgeon.
“He supposedly took this assignment on grudgingly,” Campbell says. “His boss at the time recalled that Church bristled and pooh-poohed the subject when he was asked to write an essay in reply… But did so in the course of a day.”
Church didn’t put his name on the editorial, and it was published in September, not at Christmastime.
“In, like, the third of three columns of editorials on all sorts of subjects like chainless bicycles and foreign policy,” Campbell says. “It was tucked in among other editorials. There was no hint this was going to stand out.”
But Campbell says the editorial slowly became a favorite, and then a classic, with readers.
“It would receive, particularly at Christmastime, all sorts of letters from readers asking The Sun to reprint that editorial they loved so much from 1897.”
Virginia O’Hanlon – the little girl who inspired the letter – went on to a long career as a teacher in New York City’s public schools. Campbell says she loved working with children, and she never passed up a chance to speak about the response to her letter and what it meant to her.
“That editorial kind of defined her life, at least around Christmastime,” he says. “I believe she said once that she lived in anonymity eleven months out of the year, and then in some prominence that twelfth month of the year.”
Virginia O’Hanlon died in 1971. But where she lived as a child in New York City is now a private not-for-profit school.
The school was founded the same year Virginia died, but didn’t move into the building until later. Head of School Janet C. Rotter remembers when she learned about the building’s history.
“It was kind of magical,” she says. “I wasn’t aware of the story, and as all of us at the school began uncovering more pieces of it, it just seemed natural that our school ended up here.”
Kids from preschool to eighth grade go to school here. The school’s philosophy values intellectual and creative ideas, and teaches kids the importance of being inquisitive.
Rotter was amazed when she learned just how much this philosophy had in common with Francis P. Church’s famous editorial.
“The entire editorial really speaks to inquiry, it speaks to what’s not just seen but unseen, and that way of thinking about education helps children go beyond just book learning and memorizing facts,” she says.
Rotter likes to think Virginia O’Hanlon would be happy with the school that occupies her former home.
“She was a teacher, a supporter of children’s rights, and became a principal,” Rotter says. “And it just was fitting in our school that we join together in the spirit of Virginia, in the spirit of the letter, of what childhood is all about, what questioning, education is.”
They do that by offering scholarships in Virginia’s name. And through an annual gathering to celebrate Virginia’s legacy, complete with a reading of the letter.
Zarah Franco plays Virginia this year. She’s never acted before, but she says she drew from personal experience to play the role.
“You know how Virginia was 8, and I’m 7 right now too?” Franco says. “That feeling Virginia thought when she wrote the letter, how her friends didn’t listen, sometimes I feel like that.”
She asked her friends the same question Virginia asked: is Santa Claus real? Her friends told her they don’t think so.
“But in my opinion, I think Santa Claus is real,” Franco says. “I’ve seen him before. I’ve visited him, like, at Macy’s, cause, like, every year they have him there. I’ve gotten presents, I’ve asked him simple questions for toys that I wanted, and I actually got them.”
There’s a veteran Virginia here too. Eleven-year-old Imogen Margolies played the role a few years back.
“And I was so nervous,” she says. “I was like, oh no, I have to perform in front of the entire school, what are they going to think? And then I did it and I was like, wow.”
And Imogen says it helped her understand Virginia’s question a little more.
“And how literal things and not literal things sometimes coincide. And how Santa Claus doesn’t have to be a person, but Santa Claus is like a feeling per se.”
I ask her if she believes in Santa Claus.
“I mean, no, ’cause I’m Jewish,” she says. “But I do believe in that. Like, love, and imagination, and cherishing each other. I believe in that.”