Francis Pharcellus Church, the Little Girl and Santa Claus
(I published this last year, and I am going to publish it each year before Christmas. It evokes sweet memories of Christmases past when my children were young.)
Francis Pharcellus Church was a newspaper man to his marrow. As a young man he had covered the Civil War for the New York Times and with his brother William he founded the Army and Navy Journal which dedicated itself to reporting news about the military forces of the United States, along with historical pieces on US military history, and opinion pieces about innovations or reforms in the military. It is still being published today.
After the War he served as lead editorial writer on his brother’s newspapers the New York Sun. He died in 1906 at 67, leaving behind no children. Although he lived a full life, he would be all but forgotten today except for one incident.
In 1897 Virginia O’Hanlon was upset. She was eight years old and some of her friends had been telling her that there was no Santa Claus. Her father, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, suggested that she write to the Sun and see what that newspaper had to say. Virginia followed her advice and duly wrote the letter. Mr. Church wrote the reply to the letter which appeared on September 21, 1897 in the New York Sun.
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 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET
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.
The Sun would reprint the editorial each year until it ceased publication in 1949. Virginia went on to earn a Phd from Fordham and taught for 47 years in New York City, eventually becoming a principal. She died in 1971 at 81. Whenever she received a letter asking about her Santa Claus letter she would send out an elaborately printed copy of the answer she cherished all her life. As predicted by Mr. Church, Santa continues to make glad the heart of childhood.