Published on Psychology Today
The most memorable Christmas for me was the year I was 7 years old, right at the peak of my wholehearted belief in Santa Claus. The excitement of his imminent journey down my chimney had me feeling ecstatic this particular Christmas eve—so ecstatic that I was literally up all night waiting. I got out of bed so many times that my parents finally put me in their bed to keep me from sneaking downstairs yet again to see if “He” had come yet. The fact that they were able to find a moment to literally throw the presents under the tree without me knowing was nothing short of a Christmas miracle. I, of course, didn't even notice their anxiety while swimming in my happy holiday haze, and never doubted for a minute that old Saint Nick was the one who put presents under our tree each year, and that he was the one who gobbled down the cookies and milk I left there for him. I wouldn't realize until a few years later that my parents were behind all of my Christmas miracles every year. They were able to keep up the Santa myth for nine years before I figured it out. But according to several academics, parents, and general Santa critics, these were nine long years of lies that would effectively damage my development and my relationship with my parents forever.
Believe it or not, Santa Claus is quite a controversial figure among many scientists and parents these days, and there are countless books written on the myth of Santa Claus, including books like The Myths that Stole Christmas, which claim that the Santa myth is bad for kids. The main argument is that telling kids about a magical figure that delivers presents to children from around the world on Christmas Eve is a lie, and even though it is a lie backed by good intentions, it is a lie nonetheless, and one that will inevitably unravel at some point during the child’s development. For example, figuring out the truth can be traumatic for a child, and it projects 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 well for the wrong reasons.
I’ll admit that there is some evidence that rewards (like Christmas gifts) undermine children’s motivation. So maybe using Santa or an Elf on the Shelf to promote good behavior isn’t the best tool if you want your kids to be good all year round. But, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that finding out the truth about Santa is in any way traumatic for children or that it leads to trust issues between children and their parents. Yes, the Santa myth is indeed a lie, and all children will have to find out the truth eventually. But, actual research on the topic suggests that children tend to figure out the truth about Santa on their own around the age of 7, and that their reactions are generally quite positive. In most cases, there is no big reveal where parents shamefully confess the truth to their sobbing and disappointed children, and there is no scientific evidence that finding out the truth causes children to doubt whether their parents are trustworthy.
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 lead to a fishing expedition in my basement and attic, which ultimately resulted in discovering a doll and Tonka truck my mom forgot to wrap. I had solved the mystery of Santa Claus, and it felt good to figure it out all on my own. I even kept up the ruse about believing in Santa for one more year to give my parents a little more time to cope with the fact that their little girl had outgrown her favorite childhood fantasy.
It turns out that 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 5 and 8. They are also constantly exposed to media including books, television shows, and movies where animals can talk, people can fly, and objects magically appear out of thin air. So why would a group of flying reindeer be any more fantastical than a talking mouse or singing snowman? Although magical thinking decreases between the ages of 7 and 9 (around the same age most children give up the myth of Santa Claus), it doesn't disappear forever. Sometimes we adults need a little bit of magic in our lives too, as we bear out our superstitions, relish in the excitement of “haunted” houses, and recite prayers to loved ones that 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 quite a bit 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. And 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 will begin to obtain both testimony and evidence to the contrary from their friends at school or from learning about the physics of what’s possible and impossible. They’ll question old evidence, seek out new evidence, and most will eventually find out on their own that Santa is not so real after all.
Some of us don’t invite Santa Claus into our homes because we don’t celebrate Christmas, or we choose other holiday traditions; others embrace Santa without any religious connotation, while others pair Santa with a nativity scene. Whatever you decide is your tradition, telling children about Santa (or not) probably won’t hurt them, or your relationship. Personally, the myth of Santa Claus was an exciting part of my 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 quickly approaches, I’ve found that the magic of Santa Claus has suddenly returned. Like I said, 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 over 25 years. Welcome back, old friend.
Enjoy the magic of your holiday season, however you choose to make it.