That sentence from American journalism’s best-known Santa Claus editorial (the New York Sun’s “Is There A Santa Claus?”) is still so popular that 112 years after it first ran, Macy’s is basing its holiday advertising campaign on it for the second consecutive year.
This year, Macy’s and the CBS television network are co-sponsoring an animated children’s program about Virginia O’Hanlon, the eight year old girl who sent her inquiry “Please tell me the truth. Is There A Santa Claus?” to the Sun in 1897.
Due to its popularity now, people assume the editorial was an immediate hit when published in 1897 and that the Sun enthusiastically reprinted it every year at Christmastime until the newspaper folded in 1950. Not true, says W. Joseph Campbell, a journalism professor and an expert on media myths at American University.
“Readers, not newspaper editors, helped make sure ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ lived on,” Campbell said about the myth surrounding the editorial.
Campbell attributes the editorial’s enduring appeal among readers to four main traits:
• It offers a connection to another, distant time. It is reassuring to know that what was appealing in 1897 remains appealing today.
• It is a cheery, reaffirming story: one without villains or sinister elements.
• The editorial reminds adults about Christmases past and a time when they, too, were believers.
• It has been a way over the years for parents to address children’s skepticism about Santa Claus without having to fib. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question.
Readers Know Better
Campbell, whose research about the editorial’s history won him the American Journalism Historian Association’s top faculty research award in 2004, said the Sun was hesitant in embracing “Is There A Santa Claus?,” and did not regularly run it until the 1920s.
“Before then, it was reprinted only sporadically,” Campbell said. “The Sun’s reluctance stemmed from the newspaper’s disinclination to promote its journalists as star reporters or celebrities.”
Readers repeatedly asked the Sun to republish the editorial and in the end, they prevailed. “Newspaper editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying and calling attention to journalism of significance and lasting value,” Campbell said of the readers’ push to publish.
According to Campbell, the editorial’s odd timing—three months before Christmas in 1897—is best explained by the anticipation of Virginia O’Hanlon, the little girl whose letter prompted the Sun’s editorial.
Years after the editorial was published, O’Hanlon recalled that as a child she began wondering at the time of her July birthday in 1897 what gifts she would receive at Christmas. This prompted her to write to the Sun later that summer. But O’Hanlon said that weeks went by before the Sun replied with its famous editorial, which the Sun’s editor said was written in less than a day by Francis P. Church.
“The explanation that reconciles those two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait for an answer and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time ignored or misplaced the letter that inspired American journalism’s iconic editorial,” Campbell said.
The details behind “Is There A Santa Claus?” point to what Campbell says is a widespread, distorted understanding of U.S. journalism in the late 1890s—what most people believe to be true about the period has been perpetuated by myth.
“The anecdote about William Randolph Hearst inciting the Spanish-American War of 1898 in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington (who was on assignment in Cuba in 1897) is acknowledged by scholars to be fictional,” said Campbell. “Yet the general public largely still believes it is true.”
Campbell is a professor at American University’s School of Communication. He is the author of the books Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (Praeger, 2001), The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of the Paradigms (Routledge, 2006), and the forthcoming book Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (University of California, 2010).