There’s nothing like Cape May at Christmas. The gingerbread moulding on historic houses is awakened with tiny white Christmas lights. Visitors stroll along Washington Mall, sipping cocoa as they searching for the perfect, unique gift for loved ones. The Virginia Hotel is also adorned with white lights, bows and boughs. If you look closely, you’ll notice that there are eleven jolly Santa’s in red suits that hang from their respective spots on the 137 year-old building. They are as inconspicuous as the editorial that ran in the New York Sun 118 years ago in response to an eight year-old little girl named Virginia who asked the question “Is there a Santa Claus?”
Francis Church was a 58 year-old writer for the New York Sun, who spent much of his life seeking anonymity. He worked as a correspondant during the civil war and eventually became known for his human interest features. His writing was described as both “sardonic” and “lively”. In September of 1897, a letter arrived to the editor of the New York Sun from eight year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. Little Virginia had just returned to school, just turned eight, and just encountered her first life crisis- a crisis of faith. Her “little friends” told her there was no Santa Claus. Her father, putting his faith in the journalists at the Sun every day, suggested she write a letter to the editor.
When the letter from Virginia arrived its response was assigned to Mr. Church, who is said to have begrudgingly taken the assignment. He allegedly “bristled and poo-poohed” before he “turned with an air of resignation to his desk”. Like every other editorial published in 1897, Church’s response was published anonymously. Being the month of September, three months before Christmas, it was also barely visible, with seven other editorial letters receiving responses before the letter from Ms. O’Hanlon.
The result was arguably the most famous editorials ever written. It’s a Christmas classic that has been turned into films, musicals, books, songs, and translated into more than 20 languages. In a skeptical age that was blind to the “supernal beauty and glory beyond, “ Church affirmed in less than 500 words: “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
The author of the instantly iconic editorial was never revealed until after Church’s death in 1906. In many ways, his very existence was a reflection of the sentiments that he expressed in his words to an eight year-old little girl on the brink of disbelief. “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”
Church imagined that in a world without Santa Claus “The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.” In the winter when everything goes dark, those little lights shining on the gingerbread houses remind us of the light that we know will eventually come. Children grown up, but the story of Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis Church has outlived both of its authors, reminding us each year that “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”