The year was 1897.
Virginia O’Hanlon was perplexed about the existence of Santa Claus.
Virginia’s father, seemingly evading the query, suggested that she write a letter to the The New York Sun for the answer.
So, taking pen in hand, Virginia wrote a four-sentence letter to the editor: “I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus? Papa says ‘if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”
The letter found its way to veteran writer Francis Pharcellus Church who, in turn, wrote one of the most eloquent, moving, and whimsical editorials of all time.
Church began by informing Virginia that her little friends were wrong because they have been â€œaffected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.
Church told Virginia that there is a Santa Claus, and that he “exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist,” and that they abound and give life its highest beauty and joy.
“Alas! How dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus?” Church questioned. “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.”
You might as well not believe in fairies, Church continued, expounding on the fact that the most real things in the world are those that neither children or 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.”
Church pointed out to Virginia that no one can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen in the world. Unlike a baby’s rattle, which can be torn apart to see the noise inside, the unseen world is covered with a veil that not even the strongest man can tear apart.
“Only faith, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain,” Church wrote. “No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
The New York Sun reprinted Church’s editorial every year until the paper went out of business in 1949. It has since been translated in over 20 languages and reprinted in newspapers world-wide to make glad the hearts of young and old alike.
It is reported that in 1997, Virginia’s great-granddaughter had the letter appraised at the Antiques Roadshow. It was valued between $20,000 and $30,000. In 2012, the letter’s worth had increased to upwards of $50,000.
Although Virginia’s letter is truly a treasure, I believe the response by Church is the real gem.
Church, the son of a Baptist minister who covered the Civil War for The New York Times, was considered the go-to man when controversial questions were sent to the newspaper, especially those dealing with theology.
Was Church remembering his Civil War days, a time enveloped by great suffering, sadness and lack of faith?
Was Church remembering his own childhood when such questions may have surfaced?
Or was Church just a brilliant Columbia College graduate, a writer who knew how toeffectively choose words and weave them into a charming editorial response?
We will never know what Church was thinking while writing, but according to The New York Times, we do know that he “bristled and pooh-poohed” when his editor, Edward P. Mitchell, handed him Virginia’s letter. Seemingly inspired by something deep within his soul,however, Church finished the assignment under deadline and in fewer than 500 words.
And those words, like Santa Claus himself, will be here a thousand years from now, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, to make glad the hearts of children and adults alike.
Alvia Lewis Frey is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.