"Yes, Virginia": The story behind the letter about Santa Claus

Of all the letters to Santa, it's this one about Santa that stands out. You probably know it, printed in the New York Sun in 1897:

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

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," was the famous response from editor Francis P. Church. "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. ... The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see."

One hundred and twenty years later, the "Yes, Virginia" column is the most reprinted newspaper editorial in history, inspiring books, music, even an animated Macy's TV special.

While the words have traveled far, "Sunday Morning" Jane Pauley reports that Virginia O'Hanlon's handwritten note has never left her family. Brock Rogers, her great-grandson, who keeps it in a scrapbook.

Virginia O'Hanlon's letter to the New York Sun. CBS News

"Her letter, as I think about it, brings back my childhood," said James Temple, Virginia's grandson. 

Rogers said, "As a parent of two young kids, I want them to maintain their innocence for as long as possible, and the 'Yes, Virginia' story, the letter, the response that she got, is a way to do that for them."

Virginia O'Hanlon grew up to become a schoolteacher and principal. CBS News

O'Hanlon, who loved sharing her story, led a life of achievement. She was, said Rogers, "a modern woman ... ahead of her time." She earned a masters degree and doctorate in education, and for decades was a New York City school teacher and principal.

"To be a single parent and end up with a Ph.D., very remarkable," said Temple.

She died at age 81 in 1971.

As for her childhood house in Manhattan, it is now home to the Studio School, where her legacy is celebrated for all to see and hear.

Janet Rotter, who is head of school, said, "I think what makes it so special is the idea of curiosity, the idea of questioning, which is really at the heart of education, of humanity, of who we are."

Brock Rogers says the letter is worth tens of thousands of dollars, but it's not for sale.

"Oh, no, no. That's staying in the family!" he laughed. "There's no price tag on that."

And in a time of viral videos, and instant messages, a little girl's query from many Christmases past has a permanent place in our world.

Rotter said, "It's a story of hope, and a story of bringing people together." 

        
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon.

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