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 was a precocious child and worked out the truth behind the Santa mythos at a very young age. I informed my father that Santa wasn’t real at four, to which he apparently told me to keep up the act and not tell my mother, because she still believed in Santa and it would hurt her feelings. In the swearing on this father-daughter secret, Dad both stopped himself from lying to me further and found a way to prevent me ruining Santa for other children. (because I wanted as few people to know as possible in case my mother heard!) Now as an adult, I believe my father may have gently encouraged the development of my early disbelief in the Jolly Red Man, to let me make my own decisions about the world around me with as few words as possible.

  2. I personally think people make too much of a big deal about “lying” to your kids.

    It won’t negatively effect them either way. I have 3 siblings and we were all raised on Santa. Being a dramatic child, I remember opening a gift from Santa (some were from my parents), looking up, and whispering “Thank you, Santa.” It was the most wonderful time of my young life; my most cherished memories.

    My younger brother is 12 now, and though I am sure he is aware that Santa is a myth, we still talk about what Santa will give us and make cookies for him.

    My point is, it’s YOUR job as a parent to do whatever you can to make cherished memories for your children and there’s no harm in using a personified myth to bring some magic into it. There’s also no harm in choosing not to.

  3. I grew up in a very traditional Christian home where we celebrated the birth of Jesus (we used to make birthday cakes for baby Jesus). When I was three my mom, baby brother and I were out shopping and I saw one of the mall Santas. I immediately got excited about Frosty the snowman (who was helping Santa) and loudly asked “Who’s the guy with the beard?” My mom says that she has never gotten more dirty looks from other parents. Another time I announced that the large, bearded man was ‘Mister Noah’ (you know, the guy who built the giant boat in Genesis?), once again my mom got snide comments and dirty looks from other parents.
    I don’t plan on raising my kids to believe in Santa, but if you do then that’s fine with me. My problem is with people who expect everyone to believe the exact same thing and judge you if you don’t.

  4. Some of us just choose never to grow up either 🙂 My brother and I (33 and almost 29 respectively) still, to this day, insist that Santa is real to all and sundry, spend much of christmas eve running outside declaring we can hear reindeer bells, watch the norad santa tracker and generally behave like 5 year olds about the whole thing.

    My entire family loves christmas (our partners think our whole family is nuts, but love the crazy ride), for us, my family, christmas has never had any religious significance, so the day is about santa and gifts and family and fun! We all play the game to the extreme. For us christmas is a game, a brilliant, wonderful, crazy game for the family.

    Yeah, we grew up knowing santa was real, there was never any big reveal, we worked it all out organically I think, same for the easter egg bunny (which wasn’t as crazy a day, although…), but the magic and joy is still there for us as adults.

  5. Santa is a really great excuse to teach your children some rational thought. Think about it, even if your parents were adamant that Santa was real, you likely still don’t believe it. Instead of playing along with Santa and then when your kids ask saying “No, he’s not real” or lying to continue the myth, ask them, “Some people believe it works this way, does that sound right to you?” and letting them slowly work it out themselves.

    The Meming of Life has a really great post on how the Santa myth can teach your kids to think for themselves:

  6. I am of the mind that I don’t want our child to believe in Santa. After all, we’re not believing in Jesus, so why should we say Santa is real? I was raised not ever believing in Santa Claus. I don’t remember how my Mother started it with us but I don’t feel like I missed out on anything at all. We still enjoyed Santa stories, we watched Santa movies, we even sat in Santa’s lap and enjoyed all those activities. We didn’t have to believe he was real to enjoy the spirit behind it.

  7. I think that, as an avid reader and generally fantasy-loving kid, I had the same relationship with Santa as I did with characters in books or on TV: I knew at some level that they were fictional but still loved the idea of them, and so left them in an “undecided until proven” box in my heart. I had a four sisters, too, and for me it was fun to have this pretend world with my family, sort of like participating in a mystery theatre. For that time of year, we were all part of this fantasy, and it didn’t matter if it was real as long as we were all playing together.

  8. Even though my parents are Christian they’d tell us Santa is real. Every Christmas morning we’d hang our stockings and Santa would fill them up and leave one single present for each of us under our stockings. We were allowed to go through the stocking and open “Santa’s” present before our parents were up. This one year I “wrote a letter” to Santa, asking him for something very specific, and I got something similar but it was a smaller version of what I wanted.

    That’s when I found out he wasn’t real, because Santa would /never/ get something smaller then what I asked for, because he was magical and stuff, right? I went along with it for a few more years though, cause that meant opening one present in the morning, plus I had younger siblings who still belived in Santa.

  9. Being raised Catholic, my parents wanted the christmas holiday to be surrounded by family and to celebrate the birth of Jesus when my older brother was born. They spent the first several years giving holiday gifts and focusing on the “true” meaning of Christmas. Then one day my brother came home from school and told them about Santa and informed them that he brought presents. They realized they couldn’t really go on without addressing both sides of the story. When I was born 8 years later we grew up talking about Santa and Jesus, respectively.

    Now that I’m part of an off beat blended family – I can say that it was so much fun to get christmas presents for the kids last year and have them know what Santa brought. I think joy and wonderment is important. I also think the true stories of St Nicholas are important and helpful too.

  10. There’s a place in one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books where Laura understands that there’s no way that one man can go everywhere in one night to deliver presents. Instead, she says Santa Claus is the embodiment of love and generosity. At Christmas, when EVERYONE is thinking of others and being unselfish then Santa Claus BECOMES real and exists everywhere as WE ALL become Santa Claus.

    I thought that was kind of beautiful, and I think I might tell my kids something along those lines one day.

  11. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!

    Sure, I figured out that my parents were leaving my presents under the tree, but I never felt any resentment about it. They (and Santa!) taught me the great importance in choosing to believe in the unbelieveable. I’m newly pregnant, and I can’t wait to show my baby just how magical the world can be, if looked at with the right perspective. There are enough rational people out there. I’d love for him to be a dreamer.

  12. I grew up with parents like you — they felt similarly to you, and didn’t want to lie to us (brothers and I), even if for fun. And Christmas was still full of wonder and joy, because we knew the gifts were all from our parents who loved us. It didn’t stunt me (I’m capable of being imaginative, and I am capable of awe and wonder).

    My husband grew up being taught Santa, but it was clear in his family from an early age that it was really just his parents. I know he wants to do Santa when we have kids.

    And I’m okay with that too. I think we’ll probably go the route my parents did with the tooth fairy: be very facetious and make it clear that it’s really mom putting the quarter under the pillow, but we’ll call her the tooth fairy. We’ll goof that my husband is Santa, but we’ll also make it clear that we are pretending, and that Santa isn’t real.

    But mostly I wanted to chime in as a child who never was told to believe in Santa: I turned out just fine.

  13. I think reading the “Yes, Virginia” article is a perfect way to explain Santa. He is a spirit- just like the spirit of charity or the spirit of freedom – and he lives in each and every one of us who believes. It’s not a lie to tell kids that there are some things in our life that we cannot explain- like how you cannot explain why you love your children so much, you just do. If we try to break everything down with science and fact, we forget that no matter how much we learn, there will always be something we cannot explain or fully understand. I think Santa is also a wonderful representation of reciprocity and goodwill: if you are good, good things will come to you. “Be good for goodness’s sake”
    Here’s a link to the “Yes, Virginia” article:

  14. This is such an interesting topic. You always have people telling your wrong no matter what you decide to do lol.
    My husband and I also decided we weren’t going to lie to our children about the whole santa thing.
    We have a 20 month old son and a little girl due any day. We decided to teach them about who St Nicholas really was and how santa clause
    is how our culture remembers such a wonderful man. We decided to teach them that the whole north pole and flying around the world thing
    is pretend, but there is nothing wrong with pretending. I don’t think that means we are robbing the magic of Christmas.
    We will still fill the stockings on Christmas eve and the kids will still come down stairs to gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.
    The only real difference is that they will know where the gifts came from. I’m excited for this, we are starting this year with our son.
    Some people might say that they are missing out, but I will feel better knowing I didn’t lie to my child for years. Besides, why do I want my kids giving santa all the credit for my hard work? =)

  15. It worked for me:

    I put presents under the tree from “Santa” ever since my daughter was an infant. However, when she first asked me who “Santa” was, (around age 2, I think), I said that he was a symbol of generosity. This dovetailed nicely with what I’d been teaching her about the religious/spiritual side of Christmas. As she got older, she asked more pointed questions, and at about age 4 I went ahead and told her that Santa Claus was a figure that represented the spirit of giving that people feel around Christmastime. I said that parents tell their children that Santa Claus brings the gifts because it’s tradition and because they want their children to believe in that spirit of giving…but that it was actually the parents who did the gift procurement. 🙂 I also explained to her that this was one of those things that she should discuss only with Mommy, because it was up to the other kids’ parents to explain matters. I don’t know how well that will stick, but we’ll see.

  16. Thanks for this topic and discussion! I am hosting my niece this weekend and have been roped in to the Santa goings-on on her behalf. This suggestions here may also work in discussing religion with her as she is enrolled in a Catholic school. I do not want to disrespect my sister’s upbringing efforts, but I also do not want to lie. Thanks, all!

  17. I find this whole thing distressing. The point of Santa and other “fictional characters” is not to let kids “live in wonderment.” It’s to let them believe in magic. And every child deserves that. I think to deprive them of it would be awful.
    Also, in my experience, small children find “real magic” like the vastness of the universe to be disturbing, rather than amazing.

    • Can you explain why you feel that kids need to believe in magic? And how believing in magic (which we know is not real) is beneficial to them? (Not to be argumentative at all, I just want to understand where that point of view is coming from).

      Personally my brothers, sisters and cousins loved learning about astronomy and science and the universe from a young age.

    • This idea that a kid who doesn’t believe in Santa is deprived is so common. I think it comes from the fact that adults who believed as children associate learning that Santa is a myth with an early loss of innocence, but if you never believed in Santa to begin with, you never had that to lose. A child’s sense of wonder comes from paying attention, it seems to me, and seeing the world for the first time. They don’t have to hear every big, terrifying thing about the universe to be awed; an anthill is “real magic” to a kid, mostly because a kid will pay attention to it.

  18. I was one of those kids who was devastated about learning the truth about Santa. I had a lot of traumatic experiences in my childhood and so when even Santa wasn’t real, it made the world much scarier and more menacing.

    And yes, my mother did try the “he’s a symbol of goodwill” thing on me, but he’d been represented as a real live person. Turning a real person into a symbol didn’t work. If he’d been a metaphor from the beginning I think I’d have appreciated it more. I’d have understood the work she did in order for me to have a good Christmas because she’d have told me it was her from the start. I think that’s a much better lesson to teach children than “if you don’t behave you won’t get presents”. That’s what I intend to do with my kids, when I eventually have them.

    (And no disrespect intended to those who love Santa. My heart broke when I found out he wasn’t real, and I want to spare my kids from that. I never want to set my kids up for heartbreak, and that’s what it would feel like I was doing because of my own experience.)

  19. My daughter is nearly 15, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually told her that Santa isn’t real. Then again, I’m not sure that I’ve ever told her that he is. When she was about 6, she told her dad that she knew Santa was just pretend, but, “Don’t tell Mommy, I don’t think she knows.”
    We’ve since discussed, at some length and in a more general religious context, the difference between what we know to be true and what we believe to be true. Some people choose to believe in the Christ God, and some to believe in Odin, or Lugh, or Artemis, and their companion gods and goddesses. And who are we to say that it couldn’t possibly be true? We operate on the understanding that Santa falls into this category for us – along with the likes of dragons and hobbits – we both choose to believe.

    Personally, I think I’ve had more joy from Santa as a parent than I ever did as a child. And I loved Santa as a child. The myth allows me to give without expectations. Santa gifts are a bonus, not an obligation. There’s no Christmas magic, in my humble opinion, that could equal hearing your awe-struck child Christmas morning, “you’ll never GUESS what Santa brought me!”

  20. Me and my partner don’t want to tell our children about santa, toothfairy, etc. I grew up never hearing these stories and I’m glad. My imagination wasn’t stifled, i didn’t grow up not believing in the unknown. I still believe in things that haven’t been proven but i didn’t need to be lied to for years from something my parents didn’t “believe” existed. It’s about having an open mind and showing your children anything is possible. I don’t believe you have lie to do that. I look at it this way. You want your kids to be honest with you so how do you expect them to do that when for the first years of their life you lied to them..

  21. I was raised to know that Santa Claus was a story, in the same way that Cinderella is a story. My brother and sister-in-law plan to raise their children the same way. No deprivation of the magic of Christmas, but no nontruths either. I feel it worked well for me 🙂

  22. I am not recommending anyone tell this story to their children. I don’t, but it is hilarious to me as an adult…. This is what my FH’s father told him about Santa, the tooth fairy etc.. It is rather long though!

    I never really believed there was such a thing as an actual Tooth Fairy – the idea demanded a level of credulity too great for even the seven-year-old mind. There was talk around school as my classmates began to lose baby teeth: your Dad (or Mom if he wasn’t available for some reason), would sneak into your room while you were sleeping and leave money in place of the tooth, which you must be sure to put under your pillow. He’d probably wake you up, but you were supposed to pretend to be asleep. I recognized the story at the time for what it was, a cultural tradition full of shared pretense and good humor, passed down with a nod and a wink from one generation to another.

    I was thus well-prepared as one of my front teeth began to come loose. Not wishing to reject the traditions of my society – indeed, relishing the things I could buy with the money I was sure to get – I carefully placed the thing under my pillow, and soon enough fell asleep.

    I awakened the next morning to find no money under my pillow. The tooth still rested there, where I had placed it. I stumbled into the kitchen with the tooth in the palm of my hand and there was my Dad, enjoying one of his curious breakfasts. I was a bit diffident, thinking perhaps my friends had deceived me, or that this was not the tradition of our family, just everyone else’s. I was reluctant to demand to know where was my money lest I shame this wonderful man who was otherwise a source of constant delight. I set the tooth carefully beside my place at the table, got my cereal, and sat down.

    Dad studiously ignored me for a moment, then seemed to notice me for the first time. A stern look flickered over his face. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a dollar, which he extended across the table toward me. “Here,” he said, “This is yours. I’m afraid the Tooth Fairy failed in her duties last night, and I had to track her down, and beat this out of her.”

    Dad never did talk to me or my brother and sister as if we were children. His discourse everywhere and with every audience was always the same. He talked to us in the same terms, using the same words, as he used with the learned colleagues in his mysterious job at the university. He didn’t seem to much care whether we understood what he said, or whether we addressed him in similar adult language, but we all found ourselves aping his style from an early age.

    “I don’t understand,” I said. “Isn’t the Tooth Fairy supposed to sneak in at night and trade money for your tooth?”

    “Well, yes, she is,” he answered, “but something you have to know about the Tooth Fairy is that she’s a drunk.”

    “How could the Tooth Fairy be a drunk?” I asked.

    “Oh, I’m sure she has some excuse,” he answered. “She has problems like everyone, and maybe they cause her to drink too much. But when it comes down to it I suspect she just likes beer. Anyway, she drinks, and lately she’s been drinking when she should be doing her job. It’s an international scandal – everyone complains about it. Congressman Grimm’s Subcommittee on Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature is looking into it.

    “When she didn’t show up last night, I knew what had happened: she was down at Bobby’s Broadway Bar, spending all that tooth money on beer after beer . . . and I decided it was time to do something about it. Other people might let their children be deprived of their rightful wealth, but not mine! So I went down there and sure enough, there she was, three sheets to the wind. She didn’t want to give me the money, but after I slapped her around a bit and threatened to call the cops, she finally gave in.”

    Bobby’s Broadway Bar really was a place, although by the time I was grown it had ceased to exist. It was one of those dives down on Vine Street before the Civic Center consumed the center of town, with a police car permanently parked out front, ready to collect the perpetrators of the nightly brawl. For us it developed a unique significance as our childhood mythology unfolded, becoming a mysterious and exotic place where notables of the family mythology hung out when they should have been engaged in the serious business of fulfilling childhood fantasies. But this was the first I’d ever heard of it.

    I don’t know if my Dad just made up the story on the spot to obfuscate his own dereliction of duty, or if he had been crafting this story for some time. Every encounter with him always had a quality of spontaneity, but everyone around him knew he had a rich inner life. Sometimes I think his real business in life was creating a personal mythology and drawing others into it, just for sport. Much of it had an extemporaneous quality, and sometimes I think he was just glibly spewing fantastic ideas to see where they led. But at seven I was too young to think of such things, and I was tickled. I started giggling, he smiled, and that was the end of it.

    Every family is of course part of the larger culture, but it also has its own particular traditions, shared experiences that forge the identity of the clan. Most I suppose involve Christmas with the grandparents or Saturdays at the beach, or something of the like. We had those experiences too, but they had little to do with our family identity. Instead, the experiences that formed our sense of identity involved the evolutionary elaboration of a shared mythology that was more than a bit mad and always entertaining. My Dad’s sister, once I was grown, remarked to me that the problem for me and my siblings was that we had grown up inside a Marx Brothers movie. It fit, but I had trouble seeing why it was a problem. Aunt Sally never did have much of a sense of humor.

    I learned soon enough not to voice the family culture to my playmates. Mostly the family mythology brought incomprehension, but sometimes – particularly when some adult got into the act – I found myself confronted with shock, or even hostility. The reaction seemed to be related to the salience of the particular icon in the culture at large. Someone might find the idea of the Tooth Fairy as a drunk curious or even mildly amusing, but the notion that she spent most of her evenings carousing with Santa Claus was clearly, to the minds of other children and their parents, an aberration of some seriousness. I guess you had to be there to get the joke.

    After a few adventures with uncomprehending or hostile playmates and their parents, I ceased to share the family mythos with outsiders. Dad didn’t seem to care one way or the other: he floated these aberrations in the family culture to accomplish whatever purpose he had in mind at the moment, and where they went after that was of little interest to him. Aunt Sally had a comment on that too: “You’d think a man with children would care at least a little what people think. But your Dad never has cared for anyone’s thoughts but his own, not even when it cost him.”

    Maybe Aunt Sally was right, but after many years of thought I have come to a different conclusion. Dad was otherwise a realist in just about everything, sometimes rational to the point of self-immolation. For him, I think, myths were too important to be treated as real. He didn’t think it appropriate to muddy the facts, and thought to do so was a lie. But myths could be altered at will, giving you an opportunity to create an escape from the unrelieved bleakness of reality.

    I guess that explains the family take on Santa Claus. Mom was from a fairly conventional family, full of Christmas good cheer every year, ready to bamboozle her children into believing in the jolly old elf. Dad on the other hand had grown up in a Fundamentalist household where any secularization of the True Faith was anathematized as heretical, and belief in Santa qualified as one of the worst examples of secular misappropriation of Christian symbolism. Dad had long-since abandoned his childhood faith, becoming a Methodist, but having never believed in Santa, he saw no reason why his children should either. At least not the Santa presented by the popular culture. Dad won out for no reason other than his refusal to support Mom – or anyone else – when they fostered the conventional Santa myth. She wanted to act as if Santa really existed: Dad insisted Santa was just one of those fictional creatures, like the Tooth Fairy, who are fair game for invention.

    I believed in Santa Claus very briefly, until Dad disabused me of the notion. It began with Santa’s curious habit of coming down the chimney: when I mentioned this to Dad, he snorted. “How could anyone do that?” He demanded. “Come down the chimney? Have you ever seen a picture of Santa? As fat as he is, if he tried to come down our chimney, he’d get stuck. Then we’d have to call the Fire Department, and if he was very lucky he’d get rescued before he roasted to death. And what about people with no chimney? Does he come through that little hose in the heat pump unit?

    “No, son,” he went on, “Santa doesn’t come down the chimney. He comes through a hole in my pocket.”

    This seemed as unlikely – perhaps even less likely – as Santa coming down the chimney. After all, narrow as it might be, a chimney is considerably bigger than a pocket. But of course, a challenge to one of Dad’s stories was just an opportunity to widen the myth. When I mentioned my misgivings, he stared at me for a long moment, then slowly turned his pocket inside-out. “See?” he said. “There’s no money there. Santa comes through the hole in my pocket and takes my money. Then he goes down to Bobby’s Broadway Bar.”

    Now I got it. “And drinks with the Tooth Fairy!” I shrieked, delighted to be able to participate in the family madness.

    “Exactly,” he answered. “But before he goes, he leaves a big pile of useless junk under the tree, some of which takes hours to assemble.” Then with a sigh he said, “You know, Santa is not a nice man at all.”

    Just once as a child I told that story to a friend. I was dumb enough to do it in front of my third-grade teacher, who promptly took me aside and cautioned me in the strongest terms to keep such ideas to myself. When I told her my Dad had told me the story, she just shook her head. “Not everyone has parents like yours,” she said. I don’t think she meant it as a compliment – my third-grade teacher, like Aunt Sally, had no sense of humor.

    The curious thing is that what scandalizes small children and the adults who serve them may delight the adult mind, unfettered by the need to maintain cultural standards of childhood belief. I next told that story to a group of college friends, over beers a few days before the beginning of Christmas break. They were thunderstruck. “Your old man told you that?” One of them demanded. “Come on, now, tell the truth.”

    “It’s true,” I asserted. Then I related the tale of the Tooth Fairy. They sat in silence for a while, then one of them said the one word, “Cool.” Then silence for a while longer, and the laughter began, at first as a series of giggles, then loud guffaws. When the laughter ended, they began to tell stories, with laughter and not a little sadness, of how they had been disabused of the existence of Santa Claus. And I realized that Dad had presented us with a gift most children are never given, entry into a world of adult humor that somehow enriched rather than restricted childhood – and avoided the greatest common betrayal most American children experience.

    I have to credit my future father in law since I just copied his story for you. Mr. Terry Hibpshman 🙂

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