Santa Claus and age-appropriate truths

Guest post by Jessica
Wanted: Santa Claus

My husband and I have always agreed that we don’t want to lie to our children about anything. We always want to offer our children age appropriate truths.

By this I mean when our four year old asks where babies come from, we will not tell them stories about cabbage patches and storks, nor will we get out a biology book and explain about ovaries and erections. We will simply tell them that babies come from mummies’ bellies. Not a lie, not information overload — an age appropriate truth.

We feel confident that we can adapt this style of communication to almost any topic without crossing boundaries or stepping on toes. That is, until we get to the most socially acceptable and widely perpetuated lie: Santa Claus.

This is where we lose some our confidence in “honesty is best” policy. We both agree that encouraging belief in something known to be false is akin to lying, but reactions we have received so far is that not doing so would be detrimental to our child’s mental wellbeing.

Both our families for example (and most of our friends for that matter) strongly feel that kids need to believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny to enjoy a happy and fulfilling childhood. When we express our discomfort with untruths, we hear the classic “it never did you any harm” defense.

We are told we will be robbing our children of a magical time in life and that they will lack imagination or any sense of wonder. But I ask; why do children need to believe in mythical figures to be excited and inspired in their formative years?

This quote I found really resonated with me. “I like to believe that while other children are living in wonderment over all of these fictional characters, that my children are living in wonderment over how big our galaxy is, and how much is out there that we really do not know about. About how life is formed, and how life ends. My children have plenty of magical experiences, and the best part about theirs is that they are real!”

We know that this what we want for our children. To be excited by the real wonders of our world, to be inquisitive, to question everything, to appreciate every day miracles.

But how do we actually do this in practicality? How do you explain that Santa is cultural myth symbolizing hope and goodwill, not a real person, to a young child? How do you ensure that your 5 year old doesn’t ruin it for the other kids? And more importantly, how do you still keep the magic feeling of Christmas alive for children without Santa?

Every year my husband and I give each other a gift “from Santa” and “from” our two dogs. We derive joy from this make believe and pretend. We want our kids to have that feeling too … that pretending is fun!

I would love to hear how other offbeat mamas are dealing with this issue.

Comments on Santa Claus and age-appropriate truths

  1. I grew up with Saint Nicholas–who by the way brought presents on 5 Dec. And your family gave you presents on the last day of Christmas–6 Jan. I was taught that Saint Nicholas was just as “real” and “alive” as any of the other saints who lined by grandmother’s icon stand and there was a definite understanding of a story that pointed to a deeper truth. While I have not always agreed with the Greek Orthodox Church one of the things about my religous upbring that I am very thankful for is that I grew up in a tradition that realised that “truth” and “fact” could be two separate things. I think what sometimes gets mixed up here is the difference between “true” and “factual”. There are a lot of unfactual stories that point to larger truths–and Santa might just be one of those. Generosity, kindess, love–these things are the truest in the world– and a story that reflects and shares these values with people through generations is a bit more than “just a story” don’t you think?

  2. “Both our families for example (and most of our friends for that matter) strongly feel that kids need to believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny to enjoy a happy and fulfilling childhood”

    Growing up Jewish in a very not Jewish place, imagine how my sister and I felt?! We of course didnt believe in Santa yet everyone in school did. I remember in 2nd grade dropping the bomb that the Easter Bunny isnt real. Oops. I didnt do it on purpose, I honestly didnt realize that kids really BELIEVED it. I always thought it was just another fantastic yarn that shows up in books. I remember my teacher was NOT pleased.

    So, that being said- for someone who grew up with no Santa whatsoever, I dont think the Santa thing is really that big of a deal? I think kids are really smart and most realize at some point that Santa is more of an idea than a reality. I know I always kind of hoped Santa would come to my house when I was little, but I also totally got that it was part of someone else’s celebration. I love the idea of Santa and I plan on telling my kid about him as a way to teach generosity.

  3. When I was little, I never really believed in Santa, but I still had fun pretending he was real. I liked setting out cookies and milk. I knew my parents or grandparents would eat them, but it was still a fun tradition. When I had my daughter, we kept the same traditions going. She never really believed either. She’s 16 now and we still leave one or two unwrapped presents out for her that are from “Santa”. It’s all in fun. My son is 1 this year, so he doesn’t really know what’s going on, but we’ll keep the same traditions when he’s old enough to understand. Not forcing him to believe that Santa is real, but letting him decide for himself and keeping the fun and magic of the season going.

  4. Ugh, I am so frustrated by this very thing! I really see and kind of agree with both sides. I don’t want to lie to her, don’t want her to be disappointed, but also think the tradition is fun. I think maybe I’ll just stay out of it and let what happens happen. If my husband or family want to do it, let them, and when she asks me about it I’ll tell her the truth.

  5. I believed in Santa when I was a kid. I remember getting impatient for Christmas one year, and looking up the chimney in October hoping that Santa might be early. But my belief naturally faded as I got a little older and learned to reason. I never had one of those epiphany moments of “OMG he’s not real?!?!?!!!!” By the time I was in 1st grade I knew Santa wasn’t real, and I think my mom knew I knew, but didn’t want to spoil it for me just in case. Come Christmas morning I realized she wasn’t putting her all into the charade anymore and called her on it saying, “Mommy, look! Santa uses the same wrapping paper we do!” She got this momentarily stunned look on her face and the burst out laughing and something like “Ok, so we can stop pretending now?” I hope that my kids will have a similar slow and painless disillusionment!

  6. My daughter is going to be 4 in a week. She also has a little brother who is 1 1/2 this year. I have said from the begining that I would never lie, even about Santa.This year the propoganda of Santa finally clicked in her little head and she began saying “mabey santa will bring this” or “when does Santa come” I don’t feel it is appropriate to sit her down at the slightest mention of Santa and lay the truth upon her. But I know she has been in the room with me more than once while I’m on the Phone or talking to her father and heard me give away that we are Santa. The day she comes up and asks “is there a santa” I will sit her down and explain to her about the tradition of Santa and the meaning of goodwill behind the idea. but until then a simple “mabey Santa will bring it for you” can get you through a trip to the store much faster! use it while you can

  7. I think that any child with an unselfish heart will not bother feeling lied to, but rather appreciate the fact that their parents were doing FAR more for them on Christmas than they ever knew.

    • Really? As a child, my parents were my world, and the very concept that they would lie was foreign. Kids like to believe that Mom and Dad are unfailing. Discovering that they’d both been lying was devastating to me…not to mention it threw significant doubt on the other magical being who lives in the sky and keeps an eye on boys and girls (Jesus/God).

      I was always appreciative when Mom and Dad gave me presents, and I loved whatever they got me. I just hated being lied to, however noble/socially-acceptable the reasons.

  8. My partner and I grew up with different Santa experiences. In my family, it’s this glorious, magical, important thing, and when we were old enough and asked our parents about it, my siblings and I were told something along the lines of, yes, the parents put the gifts out, but the important thing about Santa is the spirit of giving and the wonder & magic.

    My partner grew up in a partially atheistic, partially Jewish household, where they basically celebrate Christmas, and Santa was never much more than a wink-and-a-nod kind of thing.

    Now, I’m pretty agnostic, and he’s a staunch atheist. We have a child on the way. Initially, he was really resistant to the idea of perpetuating the Santa myth. But I’ve been looking forward to playing Santa since I discovered he wasn’t real! Then we found this idea on the Meming of Life blog (about atheist parenting):

    I think this is ultimately along the lines of what’ll work best for us — give a bit of magic, use it as an opportunity to practice analytical thinking skills.

  9. I like the idea of Santa, but I don’t think I will encourage it. I really liked the idea of using the story of St. Nicholas though. Instead of Santa, we will focus on the real reason we celebrate Christmas which is the birth of Christ and the events surrounding his birth.

  10. Hah, I guess my parents, or more specificially, my dad, ruined all of those things for me. I should preface this with the fact that my parents are both atheists but never intentionally tried to push their non-beliefs on me.

    When I came home crying from day care at 3 because some kid in my class told me I was going to hell for not believing in Jesus or God, my dad told me that “God” was a metaphor for good… Which, after he explained what a metaphor was I promptly replied with “There is no God, is there?” to which my dad replied “I personally don’t believe there is.”

    We had a similar situation with Santa not very long after that- maybe 2 months later- where we were walking down the streets of Manhattan seeing a different salvation army “Santa” on each corner. I asked him which one was the REAL Santa. He said “They’re ALL the real Santa!” to which I replied “There is no real Santa, is there?” to which he said no.

    He never lied to me about his beliefs but he never straight out said that these things never existed. He gave me an idea of what he believed in the most sensitive way he knew how and I was just quick enough at a young age to see through his sugar coating.

    And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

  11. I don’t know if any of you were young enough, but I remember a movie called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” that played every year on Cartoon Network. Based off this book and followed the plot exceptionally well for an animted version of a book.

    It reminds me of what a lot of you are saying and could be a good transitional place for those of you who want to get across about him being a real person and spreading the joy of Christmas.
    (Now I’m trying to figure out where to get the movie itself from for my kids someday.)

    • I loved this film too and the book. I think you can get the film on Amazon in the US, but I’m still looking for it in the UK. Thanks for mentioning this lesser known holiday film.

  12. I love the story of Santa Claus, and the story of St. Nicholas. As infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and even into their early elementary years I am more than happy to have Santa Claus and St. Nicholas as both a figure that they can believe in and as the spirit of the season.

    When they get to the point where they are questioning, I plan on telling them that St. Nicholas was a real figure, and that Santa Claus is the spiritual embodiment that lives within all of us of St. Nicholas. So that while we personify it when they are little, it is so that they are easier to understand the idea.At that point I want to ask my older kids to help “Santa” get ready for christmas, and help the younger kids with the Christmas stockings and that. I just hope that none of them have a hard time accepting the spirit of the season instead of the physical man, and that they don’t feel betrayed 🙁

  13. over the course of a few years i came across more and more evidence disproving the existence of santa, including the “why did santa use our wrapping paper” (the answer was possibly that he wraps the presents at each person’s house). when i was 8 i hadn’t made a christmas wish list for santa and realized it very late. so on christmas eve after i was put to bed i wrote a letter to santa and put it in my empty stocking. i knew that if i got the things on the list, there was a santa and if i didn’t then it was just my parents. i didn’t want to stop believing, but i knew that i couldn’t keep believing in something i knew was a lie. i was pretty upset because as i mentioned, it was a belief that i had clung to for a long time, but i never mentioned it to my parents because i thought they would be upset with me for not believing (just like i still haven’t told them that i don’t believe in god and starting at age 4/5 i believed that the bible was just stories/myths/metaphors). i wasn’t really angry at my parents for lying to me, but i felt like they pushed their beliefs on me and didn’t allow me the freedom to develop my own.

  14. I have seen both sides, as I grew up with multiple close friends who were never really introduced to the concept of Santa Claus. All of my friends who did believe have stories of when they found out the truth ranging from “Whatever” (me) to painfully traumatic. My friends who didn’t believe in Santa Claus don’t see what the big deal is… and I sort of like that.

    Granted, Christmas for my family is based on a religious background, and we already don’t celebrate it on December 25th. Adding one more oddball thing (eliminating the Santa part of Christmas) doesn’t seem to strange after you are already the “crazy family” lol!

  15. I read a really good atheism blog piece about the same question. The author was teaching his son to question what was being told to him, and when the boy was about 8 years old, he asked his dad if Santa was real. The dad said, “What do YOU think?” The boy was quiet for a while and then replied, “I think it’s a nice story, but he isn’t real.” The dad just said, “That’s a perfectly good answer.”

    I think we can pretend with our kids in this regard, but when questions like that come up, we use it as an opportunity to help them think critically. They will come up with their own answers, rather than those we or society have spoon-fed to them.

    I’m a staunch atheist, but I want to honor my daughter’s right to decide by explaining things like, “This is what I believe, and this is what other people believe. You will get to decide for yourself–let me know if you have questions that I can help with, and if I can’t tell you the answer, I’ll help you find someone who can.”

    I think in this way you can honor both your own belief system and that of your child, recognizing that they may end up being different, but both are okay.

  16. I grew out of santa because of the way my parents represented him,
    Early on they said that santa gets presents for those that the youngest and when we get older we get less and less from santa…but more and more from our parents. best way in my opinion and I do believe I will doing with my children.

  17. When I was 10, right before Christmas, my parents made a BIG deal about taking me out for a movie and dinner at a nice place, without my younger brother (which never EVER happened). They even let me order dessert! During my chocolate cake, they very gently told me that Santa wasn’t real, but a wonderful thing that children are lucky to be able to believe in. And now that I was old enough to know, it was my responsibility to ‘become’ Santa for someone younger to believe in. They let me pick a younger relative and when she wrote to Santa that year, I got to respond to her. I picked out a present to give her, as Santa. I already ‘knew’ that Santa wasn’t real, but being included in making Christmas fun for another younger child was really a wonderful experience.

    However, my parents have still not told my 12 year old sister. I think she would literally die. Most kids kind of stop believing on their own, but she still wholeheartedly WANTS it to be real, she gets very upset if anyone says otherwise.

  18. Like many others here, my parents told us about St. Nicholas and how the tradition of Santa and gift giving happened. Then they said that for this reason we pretend Santa comes and is real, and that it’s fun to pretend. And I was a kid so pretending wasn’t a stretch. Kids pretend all kinds of stuff all the time! It didn’t ruin any magic – I got to imagine and make-believe and enjoy the magical idea of Santa, while having respect for its origins and meaning. And as you grow older, like all other pretend games, you just stop pretending Santa bit by bit every year. No trauma, no realization you’ve been lied to – you just gradually mature into a different way of participating in Christmas.
    As for telling other kids… When you’re really little you ruin it for YOURSELF too if you tell others and talk about it! That isn’t how the game works, so you don’t do it. And as you get older, and you notice the difference between yourself and the kids who still believe, you’ve already established a respect both for the concept in general and for the fact that your maturity has been trusted to not tell. I think it even works to foster a more thoughtful, respectful, and tolerant attitude towards others.

  19. Thanks so much for all the comments. I found them very helpful in exploring different ways of approaching this.

    I really love the idea a few people have said of making Santa a game, explaining that its fun to pretend and that every household plays the game differently.

    I think playing pretend comes naturally to children so it shouldnt be too confusing, but it also means they wouldnt spoil the “game” for other children.

    And most importantly I still get to have gifts under the tree from Santa and the dogs and pretend (which I love) without feeling like I’m lying.

  20. I would just like to add that I grew up in a house with Santa, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. I was also raised in a house where we went to church and I believed in Jesus. When I found out that Santa, the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy were all lies I assumed Jesus was too. At 8 I was then terrified the my parents could not be trusted and that anything could be a lie.

    I feel a little differently now but the fear and anguish I experienced about Santa and Jesus being “fake” will keep me from telling my children Santa is real.

    • I’m agnostic and wont be raising our children in any particular faith but after finding out that Santa wasn’t real I did feel like I had been lied to and that you obviously couldn’t trust adults to tell you the truth.

      It didnt give me a better imagination, it just gave me a general sense of distrust and if anything, took away the magic of christmas that it took a long time to get back.

      I don’t want my kids to ever feel like they cant trust me.

  21. I’m pretty sure I always knew that Santa was made up no matter how many adults tried to make out that he was real, and I don’t remember finding it upsetting. I don’t know if my own child will be like this, but I had no problems with the idea of “Santa doesn’t really exist but its fun to pretend he does”. After all, I played imagination games all day long, so there was no issue with an imagination game around Christmas. Do kids really need to believe that something is true in order to have fun joining in pretending that it might be true?

    The thing that I do remember being upset about is my mum telling me I came from a “twinkling star” (she continued to use that line up until I was 13, even though when I was 5 I informed her that I’d learnt the mechanics on the playground). I can imagine if I was a kid told that I came from my mother’s tummy I would still have questions about how I got there, and sooner or later as I parent I expect I would just get out a book with illustrations … though I suspect by then my child would have figured out google and we would just look it up on the internet together (since if I was them, I would look it up in my own time on the internet if my parents didn’t explain it, so they may as well look it up while I’m there) (I did a quick google search on “where do babies come from” and there weren’t any “dodgy” results.

    In summary, while not all parents feel this is right (and fair enough, they know their kids far better than I do), I would give my kid more credit with what I think they can handle (remembering what I was like at each of those ages).

  22. I grew up in a house that believed in Santa and the Easter Bunny. And I have to say, it was wonderful!

    There was something magical about Christmas as a kid, when we would set out sugar cookies and milk, hang our stockings and be all hyper about Santa coming. Then all of us (I have two sisters), would climb into one bed and giggle about when Santa would be coming. And in the morning, rush downstairs to see big sooty bootprints coming out of the fireplace (we had a real chimney and fireplace), and walking across the rug and floor (I can’t believe my mom let my dad do that for so many years…I’m surprised she got it out every time). We’d all scream and laugh, and run around in our nightgowns. There’s also something very wonderful, when your youngest sister has to make an ER visit on Christmas Eve, and when she comes home, in spite of having a bad flu and ear infection, she’s got the biggest smile on her face and her eyes are all lit up because she saw Santa and his reindeer flying through the sky.

    Then one day, I just knew Santa wasn’t real. I think I just figured it out (strange how Santa’s writing looks like my mom’s and the wrapping paper is the same). My parents never told me otherwise, I think they just knew it would happen eventually, and if I was upset or had questions, they were there. I never cried or was upset. My younger sister did get upset, but maybe for like…an hour. Since then, we’ve all moved out. We are 22, 24 and 28, and we all still celebrate Santa. We still get gifts from him. And thank him when we open our gifts.

    To us, I think Santa is more about the spirit of Christmas, and the bonds we have as a family, than he is being some magical being.

    I never thought of Santa as a lie. But as a symbol. And I’m grateful to my parents for giving me such a rich childhood filled with wonder and excitement at Christmas. I will be continuing the same traditions because of those reasons.

  23. My daughter is too young for Santa this christmas, and I hope to explain to her, next year, that St. Nicholas was a generous man who put money in the socks of poor brides, and that Santa is a spirit of generosity.

    HOWEVER, I am certain I do NOT want to do what my aunt did with my cousin, which was to lord the threat of no presents over my cousin ( who was a brat, admittedly) ALL YEAR ROUND. So we would be splashing in the pool and we would hear a holler from the porch, “YOU KIDS BETTER NOT SPLASH OR YOU WONT GET PRESENTS FROM SANTA” In the middle of June. It totally put out the message that doing the right thing is only worthwhile if there are material items on the line, and I do NOT want that for my kids at all.

    • That is so funny I just spit my wine out. We’ve been noticing ourselves that Christmas may as well be the Holiday of External Motivation… all these songs singing about how good behavior=toys.

  24. My parents were very honest with me when it came to Santa Claus and other fictional characters. My mom had been totally devastated when she found out her parents had lied to her for so long and made her into a fool, so my parents decided not to lie to their children about it. I still had a very rich fantasy life and I played pretend all the time, but unlike the other kids my age I knew Santa was pretend too. That didn’t make me appreciate the holidays any less, but it did make me feel very proud that my parents would trust me with the big secret – I was told not to tell other little kids since it would upset them. I have always been very happy that honesty was so important to them and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.

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