December 23, 2016

Yes, Virgina: The Story Behind the Story Behind the Moon


The question was asked and answered 113 years ago on September 21, 1897. On December 24, 1968, the fourth flight day of Apollo 8, the first human mission to orbit the Moon, the 1897 answer was verified and confirmed by direct observation as Apollo 8 passed behind the moon.

The Apollo 8 Flight Journal - Day 4: Final Orbit and Trans-Earth Injection

089:31:58 Mattingly: Apollo 8, Houston. [No answer.]

089:32:50 Mattingly: Apollo 8, Houston. [No answer.]

089:33:38 Mattingly: Apollo 8, Houston.

089:34:16 Lovell: Houston, Apollo 8, over.

089:34:19 Mattingly: Hello, Apollo 8. Loud and clear.

089:34:25 Lovell: Roger. Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.

It was a long, strange trip from an 8-year-old Victorian girl's question to a radio message from just past the dark side of the moon, but "Yes, Virginia There Is a Santa Claus" is that sort of essay. Simple and straightforward, it contains a strange magic that never dissipates but only grows.

Virginia O'Hanlon was beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus in September of 1897. Her father suggested she ask an editor at the New York Sun remarking, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." Virginia wrote and Francis Pharcellus Church received the letter and answered it, probably under the pressure of a deadline and to get one more item into the editorial column for the next day's morning edition.

Writers of great popularity and renown struggle their entire careers to write something, anything, that will break out of their work, out of their era, and into history. Few succeed.

Time winnows out the best-sellers as well as the preening memoirs and the pompous pronunciations on "the news of the day," and leaves only those few things that somehow touch the human spirit deeply enough that we decide, without even deciding, that we will keep certain pieces of writing alive forever.

It was that way with the author of this essay, Francis Pharcellus Church. In 1897 he was the lead editorial writer for The New York Sun. He wrote innumerable reports and stories and editorials before this one and he would write countless more after. Nothing else of his survives outside of microfilm, antique volumes of bound newspapers, and a smattering of footnotes. It doesn't have to. Church's work has already outlived five generations of writers and it will outlive five more.

The editorial wasn't even the lead editorial on the day it was printed. It was number seven down the page. That's the spot canny newspaper editors use for small, tossed off, pieces of "human interest." And that's who "Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus" interested -- humans.

People immediately saw that there was a spirit inside the words that reminded them then, as it reminds us now, that there are more important things in heaven and earth and in our lives than just "The news of the day."

Let's pause awhile with this short but immortal exchange between a young girl and a reporter who had seen the civil war and the meanest streets of New York in the 19th century. More than a century later, this short correspondence still holds the real "news of the day."

"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."
His response has lasted. It goes like this....


"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."

Posted by gerardvanderleun at December 23, 2016 1:08 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Merry Christmas Gerard. I am very happy that God issued you a return ticket. Thank you for everything you have set before my eyes. God Bless.

Posted by: RM at December 23, 2011 6:04 AM

Santa not only lives, he is very busy this year.

Gerard: May all the blessings of Christmas continue to come your way, although I don't know what better gift you could receive than the gift of your life given back to you and to all of us who continue to receive the gifts of your thoughts and writing.

May you continue to full recovery and have the best of the New Year as well.

God Bless You!

Posted by: Sara (Pal2Pal) at December 23, 2011 2:30 PM

Merry Christmas! I tear up every time I read this.

Posted by: at December 23, 2011 3:20 PM

Of course there's a Santa Claus. I'm tracking him right now on the NORAD website.

Posted by: glenn at December 24, 2011 3:47 AM

You won another Christmas in a lottery you didn't even know you were playing.

That's quite a thing. You made my, and my family's, Christmas just a little bit better with that story.

Now go watch Christmas Story with the rest of us. Somethings are too precious to be earned with good works.

Posted by: Gray at December 24, 2011 8:47 PM

May the Joy, Peace, and Promise of Christmas be with you, Gerard, your family and friends and all who read American Digest, and all peoples everywhere, throughout a Healthy, Safe and Prosperous New Year !

Happy Christmas, may all your dreams come true in 2013.

Take good care,

Posted by: Sandy Daze at December 24, 2012 6:41 AM

Merry Christmas, Gerard!

Posted by: Leslie at December 24, 2012 8:14 AM

A most joyous Christmas to you, Gerard. Thank you for the light that you bring into this household.

John M

Posted by: jwm at December 24, 2012 9:13 AM

Ever wonder whatever became of Virginia? The answer is here.

Posted by: Donald Sensing at December 24, 2012 10:29 AM

What a delight to read!! How nice to be reminded we are not mere animals. Thank you for sharing the reality of Santa Claus with us. Merry Christmas.

Posted by: Gloria at December 24, 2012 10:29 AM

I've always loved that editorial comment, but I've liked it even more since the birth of my daughter, who just happens to be named Virginia.

Posted by: physics geek at December 26, 2012 1:03 PM

Merry Christmas.

Posted by: grace at December 24, 2013 12:25 AM

Merry CHRISTmas to all!

Posted by: JHughes at December 24, 2013 4:59 AM

Yeah tell your kids a lie about a fat magic elf so they can love and anticipate him and forget Jesus. Great idea.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at December 24, 2013 8:32 AM

Merry Christmas to all! (And to Dave at Happy Acres, whose site I miss very much!)

May the New Year bring happiness and prosperity to all!

Posted by: Eskyman at December 23, 2016 1:40 PM

I believe we are all blessed not only in the Christmas spirit but in what seems to me a very unique past several weeks of positive events.

This blog is by far my favorite and has been for several years now. Thank you Gerard!

Merry Christmas to all!

Posted by: Terry at December 23, 2016 4:47 PM