In 1897 eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun, Francis Pharcellus Church. It was her father who encouraged her to do so. Her question was simple — does Santa Claus really exist? The letter says:
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 is so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
The Sun printed Church’s quick response as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21 of the same year:
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 external 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 you 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 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, 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 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 Editor’s response in defense of hope, generosity, and the spirit of childhood resonates of timeless virtues. In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasized the importance of developing excellence or virtue of character. He says a person who possesses character excellence does the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way — virtue is practical.
As we head into the holiday season, we can look to the distinctions he draws between excess and deficiencies as a helpful guide in making choices about how we enter situations and meet people.
The story of Virginia and her letter was made into an illustrated book for children, Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.
Virginia O’Hanlon passed away in 1971. The video below was shot sometime before then while she was residing in a nursing home in Valatie, New York. In it, she reads her famous letter to a group of children.