The descendants of the little girl who inspired one of the most famous Christmas sayings ever are continuing to spread the message of the season.
A 6-year-old girl was sitting in the back seat of her grandfather’s truck last month, debating the existence of Santa Claus. She had questions and theories and logistic concerns, but mostly she had doubts. Her 9-year-old brother in the seat beside her was equally unconvinced. Their grandparents stared silently ahead, pretending not to listen.
It was more than just her right as an inquisitive child to question if Santa Claus was real. It was a family tradition.
The girl, Maggie Temple, is the great-great-granddaughter of the woman who has become as much a symbol of Christmas as Ebenezer Scrooge or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Virginia O’Hanlon, the inspiration behind one of the most famous lines in American journalism, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
In 1897, 8-year-old Virginia of 115 West 95th Street, bothered by friends who kept telling her 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, an unsigned editorial published on Sept. 21, 1897, and written by a former Civil War correspondent who never had children of his own, Francis P. Church, was both an exploration and an affirmation of the nature of faith and belief.
“Alas! how dreary would be the world,” Mr. 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 that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”
For generations since, Miss O’Hanlon’s descendants have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to appear at events honoring her, and reading the letter and the response to children in schools and to their own children at home. They keep “Yes, Virginia” coffee mugs in their kitchen cupboards, hang “Yes, Virginia” ornaments on their Christmas trees. Come December, their names and faces turn up in newspapers and on television programs around the world, as well as in the company newsletters of their various workplaces.
Jim Temple, 71, Miss O’Hanlon’s grandson and the grandfather of Maggie Temple, remembers the day a Japanese television crew interviewed him at his home in Valatie, N.Y. Pat Hromalik, 54, Miss O’Hanlon’s youngest granddaughter, was about 7 when she appeared on television sets throughout the Rochester area, reading her grandmother’s letter. “I believe I was paid $50, and I was so excited,” said Mrs. Hromalik, who now lives in Petaluma, Calif., where the mantel above her fireplace is decorated with “Yes, Virginia” dolls and trinkets.
There are other occasional benefits and surprises. Last year, one of Miss O’Hanlon’s great-grandsons used his connection to the “Yes, Virginia” story to have his two children jump ahead in line to meet Santa at a mall in Boise, Idaho. In 2008, Mary Blair, 68, one of Miss O’Hanlon’s granddaughters, stopped at a diner in Mountain Home, Idaho, population 12,266. “Yes, Virginia,” the marquee outside read, “there is a Santa Claus.” Mrs. Blair told the management that her grandmother was the Virginia the sign referred to.
“They were speechless,” recalled Mrs. Blair, who lives in Lake Placid, N.Y.