For the 68th episode of the Journalism History podcast, we re-air our December 2019 holiday episode.
Journalism History podcast hosts Teri Finneman, Nick Hirshon, and Will Mari come together for a special podcast that tells the story of an 8-year-old girl and the most reprinted editorial in the English language.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Teri Finneman: Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus. We tell the history of this famous holiday classic in what is now a holiday tradition for the Journalism History podcast. We hope you enjoy hearing the story again from our catalog.
Nick Hirshon: 00:20 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: 00:31 I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: 00:37 And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: 00:42 And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: 00:47 And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
01:09 Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Those words published in the New York Sun in 1897 have become as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe and jingle bells. They were directed to an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who had written a letter to the editor that asked a question many children of a certain age bring to their parents. The Sun published a response that has become the most reprinted editorial in the English language, referenced in songs and movies and musicals and inspiring window displays on Fifth Avenue.
Today on a special holiday episode of the Journalism History podcast, all three of our hosts come together to share the story of yesterday. I’ll talk with Teri Finneman about Virginia’s letter and the Sun’s decision to respond and you’ll hear Will Mari read the editorial as it ran more than a century ago. We hope you’ll be as touched by this favorite Christmas story as much as we will.
Nick Hirshon: 02:11 All right, Teri, this is something a little bit different for us. We’re used to asking the questions, and I’ll still be asking questions of you today, but now you’ll be answering on the other side of this for the Christmas episode. So you’re ready to do this?
Teri Finneman: 02:23 Yeah, it’s really gonna be fun, I think, to do this holiday episode with all of the hosts.
Nick Hirshon: 02:29 Yeah, I’m glad to get us all together. And we found a lot of interesting newspaper history to share. So before we talk about the Yes, Virginia editorial, can you discuss the history of the New York Sun, the paper that it ran in? What made this paper unique?
Teri Finneman: 02:43 Well, there’s a really good book called The Story of the Sun and it’s by Frank O’Brien, and it gives a really detailed history of this newspaper. So I’m going to talk a lot about that throughout our conversation today. So going back to the 1830s and before that the early newspapers in our country were considered to be really expensive. They were 6 cents apiece, which I know now sounds like nothing, but back then that was really expensive. And not only were they expensive, but they were also pretty dry, kind of boring. They were filled with a lot of political news and business news and shipping news because of course things then were coming over from England on the ship. People wanted to know about that. So that’s a lot of what these newspapers were like, very different from most of our newspapers today. And there’s a really funny quote in this book that these newspapers were only of interest to men into politics and “women who wanted to use the huge pages to line their big pantry shelves.”
03:42 So it’s kind of interesting to think about that. You know, these papers were so big and bulky and dry that they were best used to line the pantries. Regardless, so the New York Sun was started by Benjamin Day who was only 23 years old at this time, really young guy. And he had been working as a printer at one of the 6-cent newspapers and he actually got the idea from one of his co-workers, and he wasn’t the first one to try out this idea of having a newspaper that only cost 1 cent. Other places had also tried it and failed. But he decided to give it a go. And the first issue of the New York Sun came out on Sept. 3, 1833, and it really wasn’t the best newspaper. There was basically nothing but aggregation in it. And so what he had done is he had actually pulled news and advertising from a bunch of other newspapers and put it in his own.
04:39 So there wasn’t really original reporting in there. It was just him basically taking stuff from everywhere else and making his own newspaper out of it. So it really wasn’t the best first issue that a newspaper could have had. But what was really interesting is he ran a mission statement in that issue and it said, “The object of this paper is to lay before the public at a price within the means of everyone, all the news of the day and at the same time afford an advantageous medium for advertising.”
So he was really committed to putting out a newspaper that the general public could actually afford and being really accessible. And that’s how we really think of mass media today is being able to reach a lot of people. And from there, he really focused on local news in New York and news that would be really entertaining for the public, like police news and human interest pieces. And he ran a series about the life of Davy Crockett. And so he was really interested in providing the public with interesting and entertaining content that could reach a mass audience. And so therefore the paper really flourished from there.
Nick Hirshon: 05:51 And around this time of year, we always hear the New York Sun being brought up because of this Yes, Virginia. But again, you’re talking about all this other coverage. They were known for sensational stunts like hiring newsboys to sell the papers and creating media hoaxes. Kind of a fun part of the Sun’s history. Maybe unethical, but can you talk a little bit more about that history?
Teri Finneman: 06:11 Yeah, so I’ve just talked about Day 1 of the newspaper and how it wasn’t exactly what we’d consider the best showing, but by Day 2, Ben launched quite the innovation, which everybody is still familiar with today. And he put an ad in the paper looking for unemployed people who were willing to buy the newspaper and then resell it. In other words, he created newsboys. Right? So these are the kids that we have seen in the movies and heard about throughout history of kids on the street yelling Extra! Extra! and selling the newspapers. This started with The Sun. On Day 2, he was looking for them. And so the first person to apply for it was a 10-year-old named Barney. And there’s a funny line in this book about the history of The Sun, about how Barney was “hollering in the startled streets.” And so when I read it, it really made me wish that we still had newsboys today.
07:04 I think it’s such a cool thing that we have in our journalism history, but I guess with the pace of news now you’d hear nothing but Extra! Extra! all day long and nothing but kids screaming all the time since it seems like there’s such nonstop news. But it’s really cool that, I think, that this is part of the New York Sun’s history is having these newsboys.
And so two years after that, The Sun really became a sensation when it published the moon hoax. So this is a really fascinating story, and one that’s part of the other research that I do related to media ethics and the history of hoaxing and the history of actual fake news. And so this story starts in 1835. There was a reporter named Richard Locke, and he wrote a series of fake stories for the Sun that told people that there were bison and large-winged creatures called man-bats on the moon.
08:01 And this sounds totally crazy to us now, but he was really smart to base it off a grain of reality, which is what makes fake news and hoaxes so successful. So at the time, there was a really famous astronomer. His name was Sir John Herschel and he was a major celebrity at this time, and he was off in South Africa doing work there. And so this elaborate hoax was about all of the supposed things he was discovering through his astronomy work and which John Herschel himself had no idea, of course, at the time that these false articles were being written about him in the newspaper because he was way off in South Africa. And so one of the articles that talked about these creatures on the moon talked about how he was seeing them through a telescope. And it described it as “the next animal perceived would be classified on earth as a monster.
08:56 It was bluish in color about the size of a goat with a head and beard like him and a single horn.” So what I think is also really funny is that the author of this New York Sun history book felt a need to explain in a side note that every New Yorker knew what goats were since they were in Harlem, which was just a really random thing side-note to say.
Anyway, so the public is getting these wild made-up stories about moon creatures in their paper every day. And remember that this is two years into the New York Sun and these penny papers. And so we’re really not that far removed from the really dry days when only 6-cent newspapers with their business and foreign news were all that people really had. And that was only for people who could afford it.
09:47 And so now we have the masses being able to read this really entertaining stuff and they were just eating it up and the Sun circulation just went absolutely crazy as people were waiting every single day to read more about what was found on the moon. And this hoax lasted about a week. It soon ended up coming out that Locke had admitted to a friend, who also worked in journalism, that he was making this stuff up. And his friend ended up spilling the beans and telling people that The Sun was making all this stuff up. It’s kind of interesting that The Sun never did fully, like, admit that it was running this fake information. They just kinda let it play out. And what’s also interesting is that another researcher named Brian Thornton, he studied the public reaction to this. He looked at letters to the editor and editorials and found that there really wasn’t much backlash from the public about this.
Teri Finneman: 10:44 You know, they had been really conned in the paper with this moon hoax. But people really weren’t that upset about it. The only people who were really irritated about it was the Herald, which was the Sun’s major newspaper rival. And they kind of tore them to pieces for it. And Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote media hoaxes himself, which is a whole ‘nother episode, would call the moon hoax, “The greatest hit in the way of sensation ever made by any similar fiction in America or Europe.” And one of our fellow journalism historians, very famous in our history, Frank Luther Mott, called the moon hoax “the greatest fake of our journalistic history” in his book. So The Sun had this really colorful history long before the Yes, Virginia editorial came along in 1897.
Nick Hirshon: 11:34 And now we get right up to that Yes, Virginia editorial. So, you know, we’re in Christmas time. What can you tell us about the two key people involved here: 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis Pharcellus Church, The Sun writer who wrote this famous reply to her?
Teri Finneman: 11:51 Well, there was a New York Times article that ran years later that described Virginia as “a child whose hair was rich brown and not as curly as she would’ve liked,” which I think is really kind of a nice way to describe a child and kind of sets a nice scene there for this children’s story that we’re really telling. From what I can tell, she had really great parents and a really nice home life growing up. Her father, Phillip, was a surgeon and a coroner for the New York Police Department. And so she had a really good home life. Francis Church, on the other hand, had a much different life than she did, of course. He had a pretty significant resume by this point. He was 58 years old when he wrote this editorial response to this little girl and his obituaries described him as someone who had worked as a Civil War correspondent for the New York Times.
12:43 He worked as editor of Galaxy Magazine and then he worked with his brother on the Army and Navy Journal. He was the son of a Baptist minister. So when he eventually went to work for The Sun where he spent much of his career, he was writing a lot about religious controversy, which is interesting being the son of a pastor. And his New York Times obituary described him as a “graceful and forcible editorial writer.” So it’s also interesting to note, and we’ll get into this a little bit more later, but not a single obituary mentioned that he wrote this Yes, Virginia editorial. And it’s also interesting to note that he was married, but he had no children of his own. So he wrote this amazing editorial responding to a child, but he wasn’t a parent himself.
Nick Hirshon: 13:31 It’s always interesting to me that we’ve heard so much about this editorial, and I’ve heard of Virginia O’Hanlon, every now and then it’s come up, and for me, growing up, living in New York City where The Sun was published, so maybe that makes that story even more poignant here, or just your media outlets tend to cite it a lot around Christmas, but I never really heard of Francis Church, so I’m glad you gave us some of that background there. But yeah, back to Virginia. Why did she write this letter to the Sun? Can you figure that out?
Teri Finneman: 13:58 Well, it’s kind of interesting, too. This whole thing is interesting. I know I keep using that word, but this is just such a fascinating story because we see this editorial run every Christmas, but the back story behind it all, and not only just in that one moment, but the decades after it are just even more fascinating than the story. And we’re going to get into that more throughout the episode. But as far as why she wrote the letter, I think a lot of people would assume that this letter ran in December, but in actuality it ran on a random Tuesday on Sept. 21, 1897. Now, as far as why she wrote it, it’s a little tricky because Virginia herself gave different answers, or at least newspapers reported her saying different answers across time. And so in an article that I found that ran in 1914, Virginia was quoted as saying she’d been teased at school about Santa and she asked her father about it.
15:00 And so this part is pretty stable. It’s, it’s really the backstory of how this came about, right? So one is that she was saying that she was teased at school, but then one of our colleagues, historian Joseph Campbell, found an article from the 1950s that had a different explanation where she said that her birthday was in July and as a child, immediately after getting birthday presents, she was wondering what Santa Claus would bring her. And so that’s what prompted this letter about Santa Claus. So we have these two different stories with her quoted in 1914 and 1959 giving different versions of why exactly this happened. But regardless, as far as why she wrote to The Sun itself, that seems to be pretty clear. And that’s also of course incorporated into the TV special that’s about this as well. You know, she remembered that father was always talking about The Sun and how you could always find what you wanted in The Sun.
16:00 And in the talk that she gave in 1933, she said it was a habit in their family that whenever there was any kind of doubts about how to pronounce a word or some kind of question about a historical fact, they wrote into The Sun and again, she said, ‘father would always say, if you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” And thinking about that, you know, we’re both journalism historians and thinking about that is just really touching. And you know, I kind of miss that, right? I mean, right now we’re in such an era where there’s so much mistrust in the media and in people in our profession. And so to think back in the 1890s what confidence these people had in their media, it’s something that makes you really nostalgic and wish that still existed.
Nick Hirshon: 16:45 Oh, for sure. The second you read that line, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so,” that does really strike you as, man, when I was a reporter for the New York Daily News, 2005-2011, I don’t think a lot of people felt that way. I mean, certainly there were people every now and then who would come up to us and say a positive word about the Daily News, but that sort of confidence in it just really shocked me. And honestly, whenever I always heard this story, I assumed that line may have been something that even The Sun added into her letter later on, especially knowing that The Sun was in this war with the Herald and they were trying anything to puff themselves up and, you know, enhance their egos, to, you know, maybe put some words in the mouth of an 8-year-old and say, “Oh yeah, daddy says that if it’s in The Sun, it’s so,” but it’s interesting that she supported that.
Teri Finneman: 17:31 Yeah. I mean both in articles in 1914 and 1933 that I read that quote her, she said that.
Nick Hirshon: 17:37 Yeah, that’s pretty neat. So then obviously The Sun gets her letter. What happens from there? Cause this wouldn’t be really remembered I guess if they just either well discarded it or just, you know, ran some sort of a formulaic response or no response. So what happens after they get that letter?
Teri Finneman: 17:54 So Virginia herself would say in a lot of interviews afterward that she waited days and days to get a reply. Now it’s kind of interesting to think about that because for a child, even one day it feels like eternity, right? So it’s kind of interesting to think, well, what was the actual timeline? But regardless, there was some kind of delay before The Sun actually took this up. Whether it was they were busy or they lost it or they just ignored it for a while and didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know. But there was a bit of a delay in between and, you know, she – I think she maybe started to give up a little bit or didn’t think that they were going to answer her. And then the history of the New York Sun book that I’ve been talking about pulls in the memoirs of Francis Church’s editor whose name was Edward Mitchell, and it recounts his memory this way.
18:43 “One day in 1897, I handed to him a letter that had come in the mail from a child of eight. Church bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested that he write a reply, but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk. In a short time he produced the article.” So that’s, you know, tying into what I was just talking about, Church was somebody, as I said, who talked a lot in editorials about religion and these kinds of philosophical, I think, kinds of things, right? And I guess when you think about it, Santa Claus kind of is philosophical, right? Which is why he wrote such a great response. But this was not a guy again, you know, in his late fifties, no children, he was more into bigger question things, you can kind of see his point of, you know, why are you giving me some 8-year-old kid’s thing? He wasn’t really impressed with it. But now it’s become one of the most famous pieces of journalism that ever existed. And so it’s a good thing he replied.
Nick Hirshon: 19:44 And so it doesn’t seem like this actually pledged him maybe so much, or hit him in the feels, as they say today, it was really something more that maybe he just was a pro doing a pro job and figured like, eh, whatever you’re giving me this brat’s letter. I guess I’ll write something poignant in response, huh? But we’ve seen the editorial now has run in reprints in newspapers across the country. It happens almost every year. And like I said, it’s been on broadcasts that I’ve seen in New York growing up. But how did it appear when it ran originally in The Sun?
Teri Finneman: 20:19 So anyone can actually see this editorial for themselves and what it looked like. There’s a website called Chronicling America and it’s a free website by the Library of Congress that lets you browse all kinds of historical newspapers. It’s completely free. You can pull up newspapers, pick the year and date that you want and look at it. And so on the front page of that day’s newspaper is a really tragic story about a coal mine fire in Alabama that killed several men. And then the racism of the time is also really on display in this newspaper. There’s a story about cotton mill workers in South Carolina who went on strike rather than have black men as their bosses. And then there’s also a really gossipy story on the front page about a man who deserted his wife the day after their wedding and took off with the dowry he received from his mother-in-law.
21:11 So there’s really quite the mix of news on the front page of this paper and then practically buried on page 6, I mean, you really have to look for it, is the Yes, Virginia editorial. Now, newspapers back then were designed very differently from today. So this was basically just like a mass of text. So you open up the newspaper and it is an endless sea of really small text. So on this page 6, there were almost three dozen, yes, I said three dozen, tiny articles crammed onto this page ranging from topics about chainless bicycles to the rights of immigrants in Connecticut to ship traffic reports to expanding the railroad system.
I mean, it was just this hodgepodge of countless little news stories and editorials. So the, Yes, Virginia editorial itself is in the middle of the paper in the middle of this haze of text with the headline “Is there a Santa Claus?” and an editor’s note saying that they took pleasure in answering the note and were gratified that the author was a friend of the newspaper.
22:23 There isn’t a byline on the story, meaning the person who responded to the letter who we now know was Francis Church was anonymous. This wasn’t uncommon, though. It was really common in journalism history for individual printers or journalists to not put their names on articles. So there really wasn’t something really off about this or anything. This was very typical. Granted in the yellow journalism age, which is what we’re talking about, the 1890s, certainly there were some newspapers who really wanted to brand their individual reporters just like we see now happening. But really there were a number of newspapers at that time that really felt like the brand was the newspaper and it was not the role of individual reporters to be celebrities. It was all about just the newspaper itself. And so that was one of the reasons that you really didn’t see bylines. So nobody had any idea except for, of course, his own co-workers that he had written this piece. And having bylines was so rare that in The Sun history book, it notes that of all the editorials that have appeared in The Sun, the authorship of only two have ever been announced. So one, of course, was this one, but that really shows you how rare it was.
Nick Hirshon: 23:45 Yes, certainly. Well, Teri, before we go on, let’s listen to the full editorial as read by our co-host, Will Mari.
Will Mari: 23:52 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 O’Hanlon, 115 West 95th Street.
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They’ve 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 a boundless world about him as measured by the intelligence, capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
24:39 Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exists, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas, how dreary the world would be 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, but even if they do 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.
25:29 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. 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 glory and beauty 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 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Nick Hirshon: 26:25 We just heard now Will read the Yes, Virginia editorial. Going back now to 1897, how did people react at the time? We obviously know how people have reacted in the years since, becoming such a part of popular culture, but initially, what was the reaction?
Teri Finneman: 26:42 Well, Joe Campbell, who I’ve mentioned before who is one of our historian colleagues, talks about in his research on this topic that it’s a myth that Yes, Virginia was this immediate success that The Sun immediately capitalized on. In fact, it was the opposite. It took a while for The Sun to think that this was a good idea to keep running this editorial.
They were really reluctant about it. And it’s really interesting because, and I keep saying that word interesting, but I just love this topic, because even in this book about the history of The Sun, which was originally published in 1917 and then my copy is from 1928, but there is next to nothing about this editorial even in that book. So this is a 300-page book almost about the history of the New York Sun, and there’s hardly anything mentioning this editorial, which when we think about it now, when we think of The Sun, you know, newsboys, moon hoax, yes, Virginia,
27:43 these are the main things, and it barely got any space in their own history. But other newspapers – so within months of, Yes, Virginia originally being published in The Sun, I found that newspapers in South Carolina, Kansas City, Mississippi, Oregon, Minnesota, Idaho, Washington, North Carolina, they all ran it soon after it was originally published. And it was fairly common at that time for newspapers to run each other’s items. But it’s interesting to see how fast it spread across the nation and how many other newspapers in different states also thought that this was a really good piece of work. So keeping in mind that the Chronicling America database isn’t perfect and it doesn’t include every single thing that’s ever been published, they’re slowly adding more to it across time, but it’s really kind of fascinating to see this editorial kind of like cling to life in these early years after it was published. As more and more papers across the country start picking it up and running it, and then you really start to see after 1909 that it starts to appear more and more. So it’s important to point out that Francis Church died in 1906, and it really ended up taking off more so after he died. And then at that point, The Sun finally admitted that he was the author of the piece.
Nick Hirshon: 29:10 It’s a shame Francis Church didn’t get to see some of the popularity. He would have never ever predicted that his quickly written editorial from 1897 would live on, that we’re talking about it now in 2019 and how even more popular it became. So how does popularity take off from there?
Teri Finneman: 29:27 So in 1913, The Sun finally decided to run a piece saying that every Christmas for the past 16 years, people had asked about the editorial. And so Church was still alive at that point, knowing that people kept writing in thinking that they should rerun this, right? But they just really didn’t think that this was important enough to do. Why? Why would we rerun something? I mean, they just weren’t connecting with it, right? And so they actually, in this 1913 piece, say, “Sometimes we have complied with the request. Sometimes it has seemed better not to do so,” but that continually newspapers and magazines and Christmas card companies and souvenir companies and all these people kept asking them if they could reprint it. And so finally they just got to a point where they finally just, you know, embraced this thing. And it was just really ironic that after all these years of not really buying into all this hype, then they suddenly really start to wax it on.
30:33 So in this 1913 piece they wrote, “So it has come about that probably no other editorial published in an American newspaper ever won for itself so extensive a circulation. Perhaps it is not too much to say that it must be classed with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address respecting the number of those who know its phrases and regard affectionately its sentiment and teachings.”
So the first time that I read this, I thought, Oh my goodness, you are comparing this to the Gettysburg Address. Is this for real? And that is a stretch. But I mean when you think about it, what media outlets run the Gettysburg Address every single year, right? I mean this does have a lot more, I mean, certainly we read about it in history books in high school, right? But I mean, just the mass circulation that this editorial reaches every single holiday season, it’s really interesting to think about how it has ingrained itself in cultural memory. And then by 1917, The Sun just like totally owns this. And they give this editorial an entire cover page and it’s a small editorial. So much of this cover page is just this dramatic black backdrop with like this editorial in the middle of this page. And I don’t know for sure, but it’s interesting timing because, since the United States had just entered World War I months before, it almost feels like it may have been a strategic choice to give the significant attention to this piece about hope during war time.
Nick Hirshon: 32:01 Certainly. Well, and then Virginia herself, we kind of view her as frozen in time. She’s forever this 8-year-old girl who doesn’t grow up. She’s like Lisa on the Simpsons or something. Never grew up. And just, you know, we always view her in that frame of mind, but obviously she did have a life. So what became of Virginia after all of that?
Teri Finneman: 32:22 Well, I think that’s the most fascinating part out of all of this. You know, The Sun and other newspapers really had the frame of mind that they needed to keep following her throughout her life and tracking this famous little girl and what happened to her and not only her, but they ended up also following her daughter quite a bit as well.
So backing up, The Sun did a feature story on her on Christmas Day 1914 and by that point she was 25 years old. And in this piece, she reflected back on her childhood memories and told the paper that it “made me as proud as a peacock to go along the street and the neighborhood and hear somebody say, “There’s Virginia O’Hanlon. Did you see that editorial The New York Sun had about her ?”And Father and Mother were prouder than I, I think. They still show the editorial to callers and just talk people’s arms off about it,” which you know, is funny.
33:16 And I think people can identify, can identify with her parents about that. And that’s why I kind of mentioned that I think she had a really great home life and great parents, and they were so proud that they wanted to show everybody who came to the house their little girl’s editorial in The Sun. And so this article goes on more about what happened to her, almost comically assuring readers that The Sun had kept tabs on her throughout her life and knew where she went to school and when she got married and all of that stuff. It’s also a little bit sad here. The paper very delicately walked around the fact that her husband had deserted her and she was left alone with her baby daughter, Laura. Simply noting that her husband often traveled on business and that’s why she was living with her parents.
34:07 So that’s, that’s a little bit of a down part, but really I think that listeners would be glad to know that this little girl who had so much hope and who reminds us so much about childhood and innocence actually went on to be a teacher and to work with children and give them the same kind of hope. So she worked as a teacher and a principal. She ended up getting her doctorate. She worked as a junior principal at a public school in Brooklyn, which held classes in hospitals and institutions where children were chronically ill. And so she really grew up to give a lot back to society, a lot back to children, offering hope to other children. She talked about how she continually through her life got a steady stream of letters asking for copies of the editorial, asking her questions.
35:02 It’s really interesting to see that through the decades there are constant newspaper stories and continued interest in this woman. In March 1920, there’s a story about her 6-year-old daughter Laura writing into The Sun, asking why Santa didn’t come to her party and wanting his address. And she wrote, “I want to do something for him because he has been so nice to me and my family. I’ve got a piece of birthday cake for him.” So of course you can tell that The Sun would just eat this up, right, to have Virginia 2.0 another Santa letter of sorts in their paper. And I mean, when you think about it, this is 27 years after this editorial was published and this family is still being followed for being famous for this. It’s just interesting to see that over time, this editorial still resonates no matter what period we’re in.
35:56 And so in 1935, the New York Times did a story to catch up with her, no doubt needing some joy in the Depression years, and mentioned that there had been a special booklet released in 1934 with this whole story and Virginia had written something for it. And they mentioned that she was working for a school at this time. And so again, this was during the Depression years and she really saw the impact that the Great Depression had on children. And in the story, she said, “There is more need today for people realizing practically what Santa Claus may mean to children than ever. Because children today, their childhood is filled with so many difficult realities.” And she continues to be relevant. I mean, looking into the 1950s, there’s an actual headline in the New York Times that says, “Yes, Virginia tells questioners today Santa Claus can exist even in the atomic age.”
36:54 And so this clinging, no matter what time period we’re in, needing the sense of hope, needing this sense of simplicity to help us deal with, with really complicated and difficult times, it’s just really interesting. And in this piece in 1957, again, this is 60 years later, and she said that she still received an astonishing – and that was the word that she said astonishing – number of letters from people asking her for copies of the editorial and asking her questions about this. And so this lived with her. She had media coverage for her whole life. People asked her about this her whole life. It didn’t just end when she was eight years old. This continued with her. She gave back as a teacher. And she lived to be 81 years old when she died. It was front page news in the New York Times in 1971.
Nick Hirshon: 37:48 Wow. Well, it is very good to hear that she had a good life. It’s nice to know that. What have other historians now said since about this editorial and its impact on media or just in general?
Teri Finneman: 37:52 Well, another one of our colleagues, David Sloan, who has been a guest on our show, once wrote a piece about the editorial and Francis Church and said, “Had he denied Santa Claus, he might’ve torn down the fanciful world of many youngsters and tampered with the values and traditions many people consider important. Had he affirmed Santa Claus matter-of-factly, he would have contributed no ideas of lasting significance. What Church did was sustain a child’s hope while giving her a statement of ideals that are worthwhile for the adult. He did not simply continue a myth. He gave a reason for believing.” And again, I think that really explains why we are still talking about this over a hundred years later, why people were clinging to this during the Great Depression, why people were clinging to this during, you know, the atomic age and in difficult times this, this need for the sense of hope and simplicity.
39:04 And I think what’s also interesting to take away from a journalistic perspective from this and this is something that again, Joseph Campbell pointed out, is it’s important to note that The Sun was very reluctant to embrace this and make this some kind of annual activity, right? And as he notes, it suggests a remoteness of newspapers from their readers. So readers really wanting something and then the newspaper being like, Oh, well that’s not important. And I think that that still kind of exists today. And I know that we talk a lot now about, you know, audience engagement and audience-centered work. But I think it is interesting to think about the disconnect that, that we still have with what readers are really interested in and then what the journalism industry thinks is important to cover.
Nick Hirshon: 39:56 Well, and now that we’ve covered the history of the editorial and the people involved in that story, of course this is at some level of an emotional story. It’s a personal thing that hits us in all these different ways. As you were talking about this, that editorial, I was trying to remember in my own childhood, cause we all reached that point, right? When you’re a kid and you start hearing from other kids at school Santa Claus isn’t real and it disturbs your perception of reality of I’ve been told these lies and what’s going on. And I recall one moment where I asked probably around that age, I don’t know if I was eight or nine or what, and I asked my mom about it. Like, you know, some kids are saying at school Santa Claus isn’t real. What’s up with that? And I remember my mom mentioning this editorial specifically,
40:44 Yes, Virginia. And I remember like tears welling up in her eyes as she was like reciting some of the lines or just, you know, paraphrasing that editorial cause it had been retold so many times over the years that I guess she had heard it as a little girl then I was hearing it as a kid in the ‘90s. So it certainly sticks with us and kind of gives us this greater hope as you’re reading from William David Sloan, you know, kind of saying, just sustaining hope and a reason for believing that there are these positive things out there. There’s a certain Christmas spirit, you know, that goes beyond maybe one jolly white-haired figure that there’s just, you know, people having good will for each other. So I certainly remember that. But what does this editorial mean for you personally? Now you’ve done all this research I imagine, you know, you’ve heard this story before, so what does it mean for you?
Teri Finneman: 41:35 Well, I think one thing to point out is that the letter – Virginia’s letter and, and then Church’s reply to her – last appeared in The Sun in 1949. Ten days after Christmas on Jan. 4, 1950, The Sun published its last edition. And to me, that’s really kind of sad, especially as I think of where the journalism industry is today and the number of newspapers closing and the number of layoffs that are going on.
And so, as we were talking about earlier, this editorial, you know, if, if the father says, “If it’s in The Sun, it’s so,” you know, to paraphrase and that trust in media and in that relationship and how important newspapers were in the past, I think that this editorial really brings up feelings of that, of longing and hoping that our industry can become that important and relevant to people.
42:34 And so I think when this editorial runs every year, it kind of brings that back to us in the present, that connection to the past. I mean for me, I was a reporter at the Fargo Forum for a number of years, and we would always often run that editorial every Christmas and it just does give you kind of that sense of stability and simplicity in hope when things are so crazy, especially during the holiday season when things are so crazy and busy, and it just, I think, makes you really stop for a minute and just think about the true meaning of the holiday season and have that little bit of childlike hope in innocence and simplicity. and I think that’s a really special part of the holiday season and why it has lived on for all of these years.
Nick Hirshon: 43:24 Yes, definitely well said. I think for all of our listeners, we’re just really glad to share this story with you and hopefully bring you that hope as well. We all get lost in all of the research that we’re doing as professors, you and me, Teri, and I’m sure certainly for a lot of our listeners in academia or whatever it is that our listeners are doing. We get into that hustle and bustle and sometimes we lose sight. We forget what that thrill was like as a kid on Christmas morning to come down the stairs, open your eyes and see: oh my gosh, all of these presents or whatever it is. You know, thinking that Santa Claus had brought you something. And it’s a very special feeling that generations of children have had. So thank you again for joining us to talk about this on the podcast. It was fun to do this. Hopefully we have a little Christmas tradition to do the episodes about these kinds of topics. But it was kind of fun to talk to you and catch up.
Teri Finneman: 44:21 Yeah. Happy holidays to all of our listeners at Journalism History.
Nick Hirshon: 44:26 For sure.
44:27 Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast and additional thanks to our sponsor, the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host Nick Hirshon signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck, and have a Merry Christmas and a happy new year.