My most memorable Christmas was the year I was seven, right at the peak of my belief in Santa Claus. The excitement of his imminent journey down my chimney had me feeling ecstatic—so much so that I stayed up all night waiting for his arrival. I got out of bed so many times that my parents finally put me in their bed to keep me from sneaking downstairs to see if “He” had come yet. The fact that they were able to find a moment to throw their presents under our tree without me knowing was nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
I, of course, didn't notice their anxiety through my happy holiday haze. I never imagined that someone other than old Saint Nick put presents under our tree each year, or that he wasn't the one who gobbled down the cookies and milk I put out for him. I wouldn't realize until a few years later that my parents were behind my Christmas miracles. They were able to keep the Santa myth going for nine years before I figured it out.
According to several academics, parents, and general Santa critics, these were nine long years of lies that could have damaged my development and my relationship with my parents.
Santa Claus remains a controversial figure among many scientists and parents. There are countless books on the subject, including The Myths that Stole Christmas, which claims that the Santa legend is bad for kids. The main argument is, unsurprisingly, that telling kids about a magical figure who delivers presents to children around the world on Christmas Eve is a lie. This lie may be backed by good intentions, but it is a lie nonetheless, one that will inevitably unravel at some point during a child’s development. Figuring out the truth can be traumatic for a child, this argument goes, and will project the message that children can’t trust what their parents tell them. Further, lying in order to encourage good behavior is manipulative and encourages children to behave for the wrong reasons.
There is some evidence that rewards (like Christmas gifts) undermine children’s motivation. So maybe relying on Santa or an Elf on the Shelf to promote good behavior isn’t the best strategy if you want your kids to be good all year round. But there is no evidence suggesting that learning the truth about Santa is traumatic for children—or that it leads to trust issues between kids and their parents.
Yes, the Santa myth is a lie, and all children eventually find out the truth. Yet
research on the topic suggests that children tend to figure out the truth about Santa on their own around the age of seven—in most cases, there is no big reveal in which parents shamefully confess the truth to their sobbing and disappointed kids—and their reactions are generally positive.
My own memory of finding out the truth about Santa is consistent with this research—it was less like a traumatic revelation and more like solving a puzzle. I went over the evidence in my head: Some kids in my class say that there’s no Santa. Why would Santa come to my house and not theirs? But if there is no Santa, how would my parents be able to hide all of those presents from me? This line of reasoning led to a fishing expedition in my basement and attic, which ultimately resulted in discovering a doll and a Tonka truck my mom had not yet wrapped. I had solved the mystery—and it felt good to figure it out on my own. I even kept up the ruse about believing in Santa for one more year to give my parents more time to cope with the fact that their little girl had outgrown her favorite childhood fantasy.
But fantasy in general is a normal and healthy part of child development. Children spend a large amount of time pretending, especially between the ages of five and eight. They are also constantly exposed to media in which animals can talk, people can fly, and objects magically appear out of thin air. Why should a group of flying reindeer be any more fantastical than a talking mouse or a singing snowman? Although magical thinking decreases between the ages of seven and nine (around the same age at which most children give up the Santa Claus myth), it doesn't disappear forever: Sometimes we adults need a little magic in our lives, too, as we bear out our superstitions, relish in the excitement of “haunted” houses, and recite prayers to loved ones who have passed.
How do children eventually learn to distinguish fantasy from reality? Much of the time they rely on what other people tell them—what researchers call testimony. Children have to rely on their parents’ testimony because they still have much to learn about the way the world works. They also rely on evidence to support whether something is fact or fiction. At a very young age, all testimony (e.g., what parents say) and evidence (e.g., toys under the tree, disappearing cookies and milk) points to the existence of Santa Claus. At some point, children begin to obtain both testimony and evidence that contradicts this belief, whether from talking with their friends or by learning about the physics of what’s possible and impossible. They’ll question old evidence, seek out new evidence, and eventually find out on their own that Santa isn't real.
Some of us don’t invite Santa Claus into our homes because we don’t celebrate Christmas, or because we choose other holiday traditions. Others embrace Santa without any religious connotation and still others pair Santa with a nativity scene. Whatever you decide, telling children the truth about Santa probably won’t hurt them, or your relationship. For me, the myth of Santa Claus was an exciting part of childhood, one that added a magical feeling to my holiday season—a feeling that has been missing for quite some time. As our second Christmas with a child of our own approaches, I’ve found that the magic of Santa Claus has suddenly returned. Sometimes even adults need a little bit of magic in their lives, and I am excited to have Santa’s magic back in mine for the first time in more than 25 years.
Enjoy the magic of your own holiday season, however you choose to celebrate it.