“A full circle has been completed and her life’s work continues. Virginia would be so very pleased.”
—Mary Temple Blair, granddaughter of Virginia O’Hanlon
In 1896, Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, a New York City police surgeon and deputy coroner, moved with his wife, Laura, and their little daughter, Virginia, into the four-story house at 115 West 95th Street. The following year, dismayed by the remarks of her friends at school that there was no Santa Claus, Virginia went and asked her father if what they were saying was true. She knew her dad would help her find the truth. Dr. O’Hanlon suggested that she write a letter to The New York Sun, assuring her that, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Below is the famous letter that Virginia wrote;
On September 20, 1897, Francis Church, a graduate of Columbia College and well-respected veteran writer for The New York Sun newspaper, was handed Virginia’s letter by his editor, Edward P. Mitchell, and asked to write a response for the next day’s edition. Here is the editorial in its entirety:
It wouldn’t be publically known until Francis Church’s death in 1906 that he had anonymously written this world-renowned editorial reply to Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter. And in less than 500 words!
Many reasons have been given for why Francis Pharcellus Church’s answer, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” has resonated so strongly with the human heart. This editorial has been translated into twenty languages, and also set to music. Perhaps it is the everlasting need to believe in something other than ourselves, as well as the eternal purpose of hope to illuminate our existence.
The world-renowned “Is there a Santa Claus?” letter that Virginia O’Hanlon wrote in 1897 was just the beginning of Virginia’s quest for truth and knowledge.
Virginia graduated from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts in 1910, and went on to receive a Master’s degree in education from Columbia University in 1912, as well as a doctorate from Fordham University. In 1912, Virginia became a school teacher. She later became a principal. Virginia worked in the New York City school system for forty-seven years, retiring in 1959. She was dedicated to the idea that all children, regardless of social background, should have the same educational opportunities, and worked her whole life toward this goal.
Virginia was married briefly to Edward Douglas, and they had one daughter, Laura.
Throughout her life as an educator and activist for children’s rights, Virginia O’Hanlon received letters from people around the world, and she always included a copy of Francis Pharcellus Church’s editorial with her replies. Virginia is quoted as saying, “All I did was ask the question, is there really a Santa Claus. I did not do anything special. Of course, Mr. Church’s editorial was so beautiful [that] everyone remembered his words. It was Mr. Church who did something wonderful.” After more than a century has passed since Virginia wrote her famous letter, we know that Virginia too, did something wonderful.
Virginia died on May 13, 1971 at the age of 81. It is a remarkable coincidence that The Studio School first opened its doors just a few months later, in September of 1971. And now her childhood home, where she wrote her famous letter, is The Studio’s home. A full circle, indeed.
The story of young Virginia’s letter and The Sun’s response to it have been the basis for numerous versions of the story in various media, from movies to musicals, and the phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” is stitched into popular culture. But of all these legacies, it is The Studio School’s Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship Fund that truly celebrates Virginia’s lifelong dedication to the education of all children.