Yes, Virginia of Valatie, there is a Santa Claus

virginia o'hanlon as a childIn 1897, New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church wrote a beautiful, now-famous editorial in answer to a letter from an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon.

As the story goes, O'Hanlon had asked her father, a Manhattan doctor, if Santa Claus was real. Thankfully, her dad passed the buck, suggesting little Virginia put the question to the editor of the Sun. Church took the ball and ran with it. His editorial takes the concept of Santa from the idea of getting to the idea of giving -- making it about the kindnesses we can all do for one another.

So if the whole thing took place in Manhattan, why are we writing about it? Well, we were looking for the letter this weekend and stumbled upon something that surprised us: it turns out the grown up Virgina lived in Valatie. And there's video to prove it.

Virginia O'Hanlon's letter was far from her last, or greatest accomplishment. Years later she went to Hunter College, got a masters degree at Fordham, and finally a doctorate at Columbia University. She went on to become a teacher and administrator in the New York City school system. (Here's an interview with her from 1937.)

In 1956, she retired and moved to Valatie. She died in 1971 and is buried in Chatham Rural Cemetery.

But a few years before she died, Virginia O'Hanlon read the Francis Pharcellus Church editorial to a group of school children in Valatie. And the film is posted on the Vintage WTEN YouTube channel.

We've posted the letter and Church's editorial below. We hadn't seen it in quite a few years. One thing we found interesting this time was his description of 1897 as "a skeptical age." It made it sound as if it could have been written this morning.

Coincidentally, Virginia O'Hanlon retired to a town where the spirit of Santa Claus was very much alive. The first Santa Claus Club in the country was formed in Valatie in 1946 by fifteen former soldiers who used their military pay to bring gifts and holiday cheer to families who were suffering due to the closure of nearby clothing mills. The concept has spread to other communities around the country. The Valatie club still exists and holds a parade at 3:30 pm every Christmas Eve.

Images and a handful of facts via Wikipedia. The entry there about the letter is definitely worth reading if you're interested.

____

"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 NINETY-FIFTH STREET."

Francis Pharcellus Church yes virginia newspaper editor

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] 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 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 Claus, but even if they 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 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 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 he 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.

Comments

I thought the 'skeptical age' he referred to was that of an eight year old.

Then it's also time for our occasional reminder that "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" was first published in Troy. The Capital District OWNS Christmas!

http://blog.timesunion.com/rittner/twas-the-night-before-christmas-began-in-troy/1242/

Having grown up in Valatie, I can comfirm it's something we're all really proud of. Every kid in Valatie has a memory of Santa coming to their house on xmas eve. They're always looking for donations, or help.

One nitpick: Valatie is a village, not a town. :P

Merry Christmas

Editors: You're correct about the village/town thing. We should have caught that. Thanks.

Forgot the other Valatie Christmas connection -- it claims to be the home of the first Christmas Club. I think these have completely disappeared at this point, thanks to easy credit cards, but people used to save up their Christmas money in a special account they'd put money into every week.

http://valatielibrary.org/historicalmarkers/histmark1.htm

Carl - Christmas clubs still exist! I'm not sure whether there are any here in the Capital District, but when I was in Northern NY, I worked in a bank on school breaks and people would come to collect their Christmas Club money around the holidays.

The Santa Clause club is not a bank account.

It appears you're right, Anthony . . . I misunderstood what the Santa Claus Club was. It appears instead that it was a fund for supplying gifts to poor children in the community, not to different from Toys for Tots. Since a lot of banks called their Christmas Clubs something similar to "Santa Claus Club," I assumed that's what the signs were referring to.

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