Famous Santa Claus letter spawns scholarship

In September 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to The New York Sun, which hasn’t been published since 1950, asking, “Please tell me the truth is there a Santa Claus?”

The response to her letter was written by Francis Pharcellus Church, though at the time it was published as an unsigned editorial, and it ran Sept. 21, 1897. It is one of the most famous newspaper editorials to ever be printed in America. It is known by one line: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Little Virginia’s letter, which was written because her friends were saying there was no such thing as Santa Claus, was sent to The Sun because her father had told her, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” She was just trying to ease her own mind, but she has undoubtedly helped children and adults alike all over the world in the years since her letter was originally published as it gets reprinted year after year, proclaiming the gentile spirit and mystical wonder that help make Santa Claus an important part of the Christmas holiday and the reason behind the season – never giving up hope and accepting that anything is possible, even if it is a fat man sliding down a chimney or a virgin giving birth to a baby boy.

Virginia died in 1971, but she has continued to have an impact on the world even in death thanks to her childhood desire to prove to her comrades that Santa was real. Now she is doing even more.

When Virginia wrote the letter, she signed it with her address: 115 West 95th Street in New York City. That address is now home to the Studio School, a school at 117 West 95th Street on the Upper West Side in New York City’s Manhattan borough. The school is an independent, not-for-profit serving pupils 2 through 14 years old that focuses on a creative approach to learning for academically gifted students.

The school encompasses where Virginia used to live, so in honor of Virginia, the school is starting a scholarship in her name. The scholarship will be awarded based upon need.

I think this scholarship in Virginia’s honor is a wonderful thing. That letter she wrote and the subsequent response from Church are wonderful bits of American journalism history. Seldom does a piece of writing have such a lasting impact with such wide appeal to the masses.

And it has inspired many to revel in their child-like awe of the season and accept that Santa does exist, if they will let him.

I believe in Santa. Why not? The problem most people have is that they want to think of Santa as an actual being. Instead, I believe in the spirit of Santa, who as the editorial said “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.”

Santa doesn’t just have to be a person. Santa can be an act of caring and love. Santa helps keep the Christmas holiday magical for those who don’t yet grasp the religious connections.

Francis Church should be honored, too, for his efforts to preserve the wonder of Christmas, even if the editorial was written in September before any snow touched the ground as the story is often depicted when retold.

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About toddvogts 843 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks so much for connecting all the stories. I thought you would like to see our students essays in response to Virginia.

    Dear Virginia,
    In this day and age it is very difficult to know what to believe in. If everyone is
    telling you that there is no Santa Claus, you may feel pressured to agree with them.
    Virginia, don’t go along with everyone else. Have your own opinions and beliefs! I
    believe that there is a Santa Claus, not because someone has told me to, but because
    I am a believer in things unseen. I believe in Santa Claus and mythical creatures and
    I am not ashamed of that. If you only believe what you see, then you are missing a
    whole world out there full of wonderful mystical mysteries. Believing is seeing and
    using your imagination. Whether it is looking up at the sky and seeing a new shape
    in the clouds or taking an empty space in your mind and seeing a close friend, even
    Santa Claus.
    Never stop believing in Santa Claus, Virginia, because if you do you will stop seeing
    the magic in this world. Grown-ups have become skeptical and are missing all of the
    wonderful unseen things in this world. Virginia, there is a Santa Claus – I see him in my
    mind and believe in him in my heart.
    Much love from your BIG friend,
    Leila, age 13
    Francis Church is saying that belief is something we all have, but that some of us
    may not use it. In the part that he says, “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?” he is saying that some
    children need to see, feel, or hear something to believe it’s there. I don’t. Mr. Church
    means that Santa is not flesh, bones and blood, or the guy in a red suit. He is joy,
    giving, love, peace and happiness.
    To me, joy is feeling wind in my face; to me, giving is when I am given respect by an
    other person or giving respect to someone else; to me love is being heard and cared
    for; to me peace is being free to move and breathe; and to me happiness is being
    close to someone and being able to love them. I hope Santa and Christmas live on
    forever in the hearts of many people.
    I think this editorial is important to people of all ages because it speaks of love,
    poetry and hope as being stronger than any man alive.
    Lucia, age 9
    Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis P. Church took the readers of The Sun newspaper
    on a journey to think about what Santa Claus means to them personally
    They made me wonder, does Santa Claus have to be seen, or can he thrive just by
    being what he is in our hearts? When I was little I went to Macy’s and sat on Santa’s
    lap and his beard came off. Then I knew that this wasn’t the real Santa but it didn’t
    matter to me. I still believed that there was a real Santa somewhere and I knew he’d
    still come on Christmas Eve. I didn’t have to find the real Santa to believe in him.
    Now, when he comes at Christmas, he still brings new toys and a feeling of joy
    about my life. He symbolizes the excitement I feel about life and the magic of things
    that are not logical. Even when I’m a grown up I’ll know that Santa is real because of
    the feeling of joy I get at Christmas time. I don’t have to see him for him to be real in
    my heart.
    Sydney, age 10
    Dear Virginia,
    Santa Claus isn’t just a man who leaves you presents on Christmas Eve. He
    is much more than that. Santa symbolizes hope, love, belief, imagination and
    the true spirit of Christmas. Eventually, we reach an age where we try to find
    explanations for everything. We lose the excitement in wonder and magic, and
    become more and more skeptical. Some people, like your friends, stop believing in
    Santa but don’t let them convince you.
    I believe that the best things in the world are those that you can’t see and that
    life would be very boring if there were no imagination, hope or belief in them. You
    couldn’t play, there would be no books, no toys or any games! We need imagination,
    hope and belief for all of those things to exist. Without them there would be no
    creativity or fun. There are many things in science that you can’t see either. You
    can’t see germs, air, or gravity, but you know that they’re there. Well, it’s the same
    with Santa. You may not have seen him, but that’s no reason not to believe in him.
    Your friend,
    Samuel, age 11
    Santa Claus is as real as you or me. He brings with him the spirit of Christmas, he
    brings everyone together, and we can feel his effect on us, even if we can’t see him.
    He resides in our hearts, and in our imaginations. It is a shame that Christmas Eve
    is the only time people believe he comes to us. Santa Claus is the Christmas Spirit
    embodied and he inspires those feelings of delight, love, wonder and happiness,
    which should be part of our lives all year round.
    We are much too dependent on what we can see, leaving the unseen less
    accessible to us. Why and how do we believe in love? Can love be seen? Love in
    the very essence of the word; I don’t know about you but I don’t see it. I feel the
    effects of love, like I feel the effects of Santa, however I don’t need to see them
    to believe love is there. If I didn’t trust enough to believe that love was there, an
    intangible, invisible connection, I would be terribly sad and alone. And that is what
    I think Mr. Church is saying. We must trust what we cannot see and put our faith in
    the unknown. If we abandon what is unknown to our senses, how can we truly know
    anything? And so, I think Mr. Church’s letter is important for everyone to read, so we
    don’t forget what we don’t forget what we don’t see.
    Jenan, age 13
    Dear Virginia,
    I too believe in Santa Claus. Although I am at an age where most adolescents
    start to become skeptical, I have avoided this as much as I can, and to me Santa
    Claus is real.
    What makes me believe in Santa Claus are the feelings of confidence and faith
    that he gives me. I have confidence in my future, and faith in my abilities. Through
    my laughter, joy, and belief in the unseen, he is real to me. That is what Mr. Church
    is trying to convey, not only to you but to everyone of all ages. What would we all
    do if there were no Santa Claus? He is a beacon that guides us to our bliss and
    laughter at Christmas time.
    Believe in things you can’t see. It’s great! It puts our imaginations to work,
    it leads to discoveries, and most importantly, it may lead to jubilant thoughts!
    The editorial response you received from Mr. Church is important because he
    wants us all to know that belief plays a big role in our lives and that by believing
    we all can be united as one.
    So remember, Virginia, seeing isn’t always believing, but as long as your
    feelings are passionate, your beliefs are real.
    Neyanel, age 12

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