Several years ago, a 6-year-old girl was sitting in the back of her grandparents’ car debating the existence of Santa Claus. She had questions, theories and some doubts.
Her grandparents stared silently ahead, pretending not to listen.
It was more than just a right to challenge the existence of Santa Claus. It’s a family tradition, quipped Jim Temple, the grandson of Virginia O’Hanlon – the inspiration behind one of the most famous lines in U.S. journalism: “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.’’
Temple’s granddaughter Maggie is a symbol of the millions of children who ask that very question each holiday season. In fact, the question and the history behind the “Yes, Virginia’’ line has spawned a cache of collectible Christmas tree bulbs, dolls, books and advertising campaign memorabilia.
It all began in 1897, when 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon of Manhattan, bothered by friends who kept telling her that there was no such thing as Santa, wrote a letter to The New York Sun. “Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun it’s so. Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?’’ she wrote.
The response was an unsigned editorial published Sept. 21, 1897, written by former Civil War correspondent Francis P. Church, who had no children. His response was both an exploration and affirmation of the nature of faith.
“Alas, how dreary would be this world,’’ Church wrote, “if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.’’ He added, “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.’’
For generations since, O’Hanlon’s descendants have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to events honoring her and reading the letter and the response. Their latest holiday trek was kicking off the eighth annual “Toys for Tots’’ drive Nov. 16, 2012, at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering in Pittsburgh, Pa. The event, organized by Carnegie Mellon engineering freshmen, is designed to collect toys for the national U.S. Marine Corps drive, which was begun in 1957 to help needy families nationwide.
Come December, the toy drives thrive and so do the many collectors who spend all season saving money to buy the perfect “Yes, Virginia’’ collectible.
The faithful, like Jim Temple and his wife Cheryl, keep “Yes, Virginia’’ coffee mugs on their kitchen cupboards and hang “Yes, Virginia’’ ornaments on their Christmas tree.
Brenda Hampton of Waynesburg, Pa., decorates her living room mantel with “Yes, Virginia’’ dolls and trinkets. “Our entire family sits around the fireplaace Christmas eve taking turns reading the famous New York Sun editorial,’’ said Hampton. “I have about a dozen ‘Yes, Virginia’ ornaments and I plan to save them and give them to my five grandchildren when they are old enough to appreciate them.’’
Ellen King of Hilliards, Pa., posts a candy cane lantern in her side yard every Christmas with the “Yes, Virginia’’ believe headline fluttering in the winter breeze. “It simply would not be the holidays without the ‘Yes, Virginia’ sentiments,’’ said King, owner of King’s Antiques.
Other “Yes, Virginia’’ collectors, like Michael Hurt of Princeton, N.J., use the holiday season to search for unique collectibles. “I collect old books and magazines with reprints of the famous letter and response,’’ he said. His most prized collectible is a 1939 copy of a holiday magazine by Ideals Publications with the famous letter and editorial response. a
Laura Reif, owner of Dollhouse Miniatures in Verona, Pa., said many collectors like to spoil themselves during the holiday season. “They tend to purchase things that they have waited for all year,’’ she said. And large department store chains have tapped into that sentiment. Macy’s “Believe’’ campaign is based on the “Yes, Virginia’’ letter and editorial response. For every patron’s “Letter to Santa,” the store donates a $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which has collected $4 million over the past five years. Still, the
real thrill for most antique buffs is finding the most unique “Yes, Virginia” memorabilia.
Leslie Ruff of Burlington, Vt., said she just discovered a tiny dollhouse book with a reprint of the “Yes, Virginia’’ editorial in her great grandmother’s attic. “I can remember my grandmother telling me about the New York Sun editorial, and I always wondered what happened to Virginia O’Hanlon when she grew up.’’
O’Hanlon was a New Yorker. She had an apartment in Greenwich Village. She loved baseball. She took Jim Temple, her grandson, to his first movie and showed him how to use the subway.
“She always wore an elegant coat, heels and a string of pearls around her neck,’’ said Temple, a retired manager for the New York State Department of Transportation. “She raised my mother as a single parent. I don’t know why she got divorced, they didn’t talk about that kind of stuff,’’ said Temple, 73, of North Chatham, N.Y.
A pioneer in her own right, Temple explains that his grandmother received a doctorate in education from Fordham University. “I think we always knew she was special from a very young age,’’ said Temple.
And that enduring quality of faith and belief continue “to make glad the heart of childhood.’’
Susan Rift of Pittsburgh, Pa., who studies how children play, said the holiday season brings out the child in all of us. “I collect ‘Yes, Virginia’ ornaments and tea sets, and I never grow weary of finding new artifacts,” she said. “I think we all wish we could be Virginia O’Hanlon, if not just for the holiday season.’’ ■
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