MANILA, December 24, 2004 (STAR) YAHOO By Stephanie Tanyu Coyiuto (Young Star writer) - Each year, especially in a predominantly Catholic country such as ours, debates regarding the true meaning of Christmas never fail to spring up. I devour and delight in stories of the nativity, I am saddened whenever I see or hear Old St. Nick bashed amid the controversy – whether intentionally or not. The usual argument is that Santa is just for kids and the well-off; he has no real purpose but to perpetuate superficiality and materialism. I don’t believe that it has to be one or the other; the character of Santa does not detract from the significance of the birth of Christ. There is much more to Santa than a bright red outfit, beard, gifts, the North Pole, and "Ho ho ho’s," according to Francis P. Church.

Most of you – young and old, have probably read Church’s editorial, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." When it was first published, it was an immediate sensation, and became one of the most famous and beloved editorials ever written. It first appeared in The New York Sun in 1897 and was reprinted regularly until 1949 when the paper went out of business. I see no reason why this tradition shouldn’t be continued, as the letter’s message of the importance of faith, poetry and romance is as meaningful today as it was over a century ago.

An ever-curious child, I asked the same question young Virginia did when I was her age. I still remember reading Church’s response for the very first time. It was a glorious and magical moment wherein I felt that the letter was written just for me. I was Virginia, even if for just a moment. No one could have convinced me otherwise. It is in this light that I steadfastly believe that this is a letter ought to be read by all children of today’s world and the next – not just to brighten their hearts, but to broaden their imagination and open them to possibilities. As similarly conveyed by so many books and movies, without believing, what else is Christmas for?

As each year passed, the letter’s impact on me grew stronger and I began to wonder if Virginia was real – not that it would have made much difference had I found that she was actually make believe. Not only did I find that Virginia – Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas, to be exact, did exist, I also discovered that she grew up to become sort of a Christmas spokesperson herself. Someone once said that if Virgina had written the letter a hundred years later, it might have meant "a whole line of Virgiña Christmas decorations. A Virginia blinking Rudolf nose mask. Or a Yes, Virginia, There is a Perfect Christmas Gift catalog. But for Virgina O’Hanlon in 1897, it meant minor public appearances, speaking to children’s groups, and book about her and her letter." In an interview in 1963, Virginia professed that the letter changed her life and her faith in Santa Claus. "The older I grow, the more I realize what a perfect philosophy it is for life," she said.

The People’s Almanac and the Saturday Evening Post further detail the life story of Virginia, the little girl who prompted one of the greatest tributes to the Christmas spirit.

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Thirty-six years after her letter was printed, Virginia O’Hanlon recalled the events that prompted her letter:

"Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn’t any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject.

It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the "Question and Answer column" in The Sun. Father would always say, ‘If you see it in the The Sun, it’s so,’ and that settled the matter.

‘Well, I’m just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,’ I said to father.

He said, ‘Go ahead, Virginia. I’m sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.’"

And so Virginia sat down and wrote her parents’ favorite newspaper.

Her letter found its way into the hands of a veteran editor, Francis P. Church. Son of a Baptist minister, Church had covered the Civil War for The New York Times and had worked on the The New York Sun for 20 years, as an anonymous editorial writer. Church, a sardonic man, had for his personal motto, "Endeavor to clear your mind of can’t." When controversial subjects had to be tackled on the editorial page, especially those dealing with theology, the assignments were usually given to Church.

Now, he had in his hands a little girl’s letter on a most controversial matter, and he was burdened with the responsibility of answering it.

"Is there a Santa Claus?" the childish scrawl in the letter asked. At once, Church knew that there was no avoiding the question. He must answer, and he must answer truthfully. And so he turned to his desk, and he began his reply which was to become one of the most memorable editorials in newspaper history.

Church married shortly after the editorial appeared. He died in April, 1906, leaving no children.

Virginia O’Hanlon went on to graduate from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts degree at age 21.

The following year she received her Masters degree from Columbia University, and after a while, a doctorate from Fordham. Virginia had a long and distinguished career as a teacher and administrator in the New York City school system. Throughout her life she received a steady stream of mail about her Santa Claus letter, and to each reply she attached an attractive printed copy of the Church editorial, all the while saying, "I still believe."

Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81.

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(Editorial printed in the New York Sun in 1897)

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

Dear Editor,

I am eight 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

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when 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 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 supernatural 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, ten times ten thousand years from now he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Francis P. Church

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A Merry Christmas to all. Thank God He lives! For comments or suggestions, e-mail me at

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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