NINETY-FOUR Christmas seasons ago the old New York Sun...


December 22, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

NINETY-FOUR Christmas seasons ago the old New York Sun published the most famous and enduring editorial ever to appear in an American newspaper.

Yes, Reader, I mean that blankety-blank "Yes, Virginia" editorial.

As you surely know, a girl named Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the Sun that said, "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?"

A Sun editorial replied, "Dear Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. . . . Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. . . ." The editorial was reprinted in the Sun every year thereafter till the paper folded in 1950.

Now there are a couple of things you don't know about this. One, Virginia didn't write to the editorial page per se. She wrote to the paper's "Questions and Answers" column. Two, somehow her letter was dumped on Francis Pharcellus Church, an editorial writer well known for his "graceful and forcible editorial writing," as the New York Times put it in his obituary in 1906.

Poor Church. He had had a distinguished journalistic career. He had been an admired war correspondent for the Times with the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. He and his brother Col. William C. Church founded the Army and Navy Journal. He was editor of Galaxy magazine. By 1897 he had been writing editorials for the Sun for nearly a third of a century.

He was little known outside his profession and circle of friends, but within those groups he was respected as "a controversialist," especially in the field of religion. The Times even ran an editorial to note his death. It didn't mention "Yes, Virginia." It did observe that some of his readers found his editorials "far too sardonic and cold blooded."

Imagine how you would have felt. You've spent your life becoming a sardonic, cold-blooded expert on an important subject. One day your boss walks in and hands you this stupid letter from some spoiled brat and says, "Frank, gimme 60 lines on Santa Claus. And watch that sardonicism."

And so you write, "No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood." Et cetera and et cetera.

It's not recorded, but I would guess the rest of his day went something like this: He wrote another editorial headlined "Albrecht Ritschl's 'Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation.' " Then he went home. "How was your day, dear?" asks his wife.

"Shut up and fix me a martini," he mutters, "Make it a pitcher. Thirty-two years, and they're got me answering kids' letters to 'Q. & A.'!"

* * * Merry Christmas.

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