Yes, Santa, there was a Virginia

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

Given all the hoopla and hokum—and bitterness of kicking someone in the teeth—about the legend that there once was a celebrated Iowa caucus, let’s get back to reality.

Let’s consider whether there once was a Virginia who wondered about Santa Claus, and whether he actually was a fellow who dealt with things that really mattered—like merriment, consideration of others, and even being jolly.

The Virginia, allegedly named Virginia O’Hanlon, was said to be an 8-year-old New York girl who wrote to the New York Sun in September 1897 and asked, “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

She did so because, she wrote, "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.'”

As if The Sun's editorial staff didn’t have enough to do, someone suggested, “Hey, why don’t we answer this kid?”

Given the supposed sardonic nature of newsrooms, rumor has it that the editorial page people cast lots to see who would answer Virginia.

Francis P. Church supposedly lost. So he penned a reply including the famous words, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

His “Yes, Virginia” editorial is a Christmastime classic, often paraded in the press this time of year before the world returns to teeth-kicking.

But what about Virginia? Did she ever exist? You may wonder whether the legend is “fake news."

I’m here to tell you she was real. Though my information is second-hand, from her daughter, Laura.

The time was Christmas 1964, and there was a rumor Virginia had died in upstate New York.

At the time I was working a night shift (7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.) at the Associated Press bureau in Albany, New York, about as far away you could get from “upstate” while still being there. So I had to check out the rumor and maybe write a story of national interest.

As it happened, I didn’t have to write of her death.

Her daughter Laura Virginia Douglas told me mom was asleep at the time in Laura’s home and doing fine.

Our ensuing conversation caused me to believe that not only was Virginia real and a believer in Santa as a kid, but she spread his merriment throughout her life. That included time as a mother, grandmother, teacher, and principal, having earned degrees from Hunter College, Columbia University, and a doctorate from Fordham.

Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died at age 81 in May 1971, in Valatie, New York—still faithful to her childhood values.

So, if Santa is looking for evidence that some people who have a joyous outlook in childhood continue to share that joy as adults, we can tell him, “Yes, Santa, there was a Virginia, and there are still millions of them.”

Church said as much: “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

Top images of Virginia O'Hanlon and Francis P. Church available via Wikipedia.

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