Published on Psychology Today
December is here, which means many of us are getting into the holiday spirit, singing carols, shopping for gifts, and sipping hot cocoa (or a pumpkin spice latte) by the fire. Likewise, many of our children are deep in anticipation of Santa Claus’ upcoming visit, and what they might find underneath the tree when they awake on Christmas morning.
The Santa Claus myth dates back hundreds of years to a real-life monk named St. Nicholas who was born around 280 AD in modern-day Turkey. He was known for being incredibly generous to the poor, often giving them gifts. Fast-forward to 16th century England under the reign of Henry VIII; here, “Father Christmas” was depicted as a large man in red robes lined with fur, who represented Christmas cheer. At some point, the two of these characters merged and the modern-day Santa Claus was born, and has been popular ever since, mostly with Western Christian culture, but also with Westerners who don’t necessarily have a religious affiliation.
We’re not particularly religious in our house (despite our Catholic roots), but Santa Claus becomes the center of our world every December. To say that my kids are excited about Christmas is an understatement; they are ecstatic. At the ages of 3 and 6, they are at the prime age for belief in Santa Claus. They write him a letter every year and insist on baking him cookies that we set out beside the tree on Christmas Eve, along with a few carrots for his reindeer.
It makes you wonder: How on earth can they believe so wholeheartedly that one man travels to every home in the world in a single night, riding a sled driven by magical flying reindeer? Maybe with animated television shows and movies becoming more and more realistic, the line between what’s real and what is fantasy isn’t all that clear for kids. But it turns out that most kids are actually pretty skeptical about the realities of what they see. In fact, after watching the movie “March of the Penguins”—a documentary about the yearly journey of emperor penguins in Antarctica—many children reported believing that the movie wasn’t a real depiction of penguins and was instead created with special effects and animation (Woolley & Ghossainy, 2013). Likewise, in one study probing children’s beliefs in the events depicted in storybooks, only 30% of 3- to 5-year-olds thought that the characters and events in the books were real, even the realistic ones (Woolley & Cox, 2007).
Children don’t believe everything they see. So why do they so readily believe in Santa? It turns out that there are a number of factors that children use to decide whether or not to believe in fantastical stories. One of those things is what researchers call testimony, or what people tell you. Parents, friends, and relatives likely tell children over and over again that the things they see on TV aren’t real, and that Peter Rabbit, Elmo, and Harry Potter aren’t real animals, furry monsters, or people, despite how realistically they are depicted in the pages of their books or on the big screen. This isn’t the case for Santa Claus. In contrast, for Santa, children are likely to hear repeatedly from others, especially from people they trust like their moms and dads, that Santa is real. In fact, children are most likely to believe in Santa if their parents endorse the Santa story, which isn’t surprising, since parents are generally a reliable source of information for young children.
Children are also most likely to believe in Santa if parents leave evidence around the house to support his story. In general, children (and adults) are more likely to believe something if they see evidence to support it with their own eyes (Woolley, Boerger, & Markman, 2004). And in most cases, stories about Santa are accompanied by evidence of his visits, with toys and candy sprinkled around the house and under the tree on Christmas morning. Parents spend quite a lot of time and energy promoting the Santa story, regardless of their kids’ ages (Goldstein & Woolley, 2016). And contrary to what you might guess, the more children see men dressed in red suits and white beards at the mall, museums, or at the Christmas tree farm, the more they believe that Santa is real.
When thinking about children’s abilities and how they come to build their beliefs, it actually isn’t so surprising that the Santa story sticks, at least for a little while. In fact, for children between the ages of about 5 and 8, magical thinking is a normal part of everyday life. Children of this age often have magical beliefs, not only believing in Santa Claus, but also believing in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, flying carpets, magic beans, and that stepping on a crack might break your mother’s back. So it isn’t super surprising that Santa Claus, his elves, and his flying reindeer fit nicely into children’s regular world view, especially between the ages of 5 and 8, when there is testimony and evidence to support that he’s a living, breathing, jolly old elf.
Around the ripe old age of 7 or 8, children’s belief in Santa and the world of fantastical beasts seems to wane. It isn’t that parents confess that the Santa story was all just a fabrication, or that they try less hard to push the story once children reach grade school; instead, it seems to be that as children get older, they start to question the physical impossibilities of the Santa story—a story that they didn’t even think to question a few years earlier (Shtulman & Yoo. 2015). As children start to understand more about physical impossibilities, they learn for themselves that the Santa story just couldn’t be real. Indeed, research suggests that children tend to figure out the truth about Santa on their own around this time, and that their reactions are generally quite positive (Anderson & Prentice, 1994). There is no scientific evidence that finding out the truth about Santa causes children any distress or makes them doubt whether their parents are trustworthy. Some kids don’t even tell their parents that they’ve figured it out—they understand that even parents get joy out of the Santa myth, and so children sometimes let their parents hold on to the holiday magic for a few more years.
In some ways, magical thinking never goes away completely. Many adults have some magical or supernatural beliefs, and believe in ghosts, demons, or aliens (which is common of about 45% of people in the US). So while we might think of magical thinking as something characteristic of childhood, it doesn’t necessarily disappear when we grow up. Whether or not Santa visits your house, enjoy the magic of this holiday season—however old you might be.
Photo by pxhere/Public Domain
Anderson, C. J., & Prentice, N. M. (1994). Encounter with reality: children's reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth. Child psychiatry and human development, 25(2), 67-84.
Goldstein, T. R., & Woolley, J. (2016). Ho! Ho! Who? Parent promotion of belief in and live encounters with Santa Claus. Cognitive Development, 39, 113-127.
Shtulman, A., & Yoo, R. I. (2015). Children's understanding of physical possibility constrains their belief in Santa Claus. Cognitive Development, 34, 51-62.
Woolley, J. D., Boerger, E. A., & Markman, A. B. (2004). A visit from the Candy Witch: Factors influencing young children's belief in a novel fantastical being. Developmental science, 7(4), 456-468.
Woolley, J. D., & Cox, V. (2007). Development of beliefs about storybook reality. Developmental science, 10(5), 681-693.
Woolley, J. D., & E. Ghossainy, M. (2013). Revisiting the fantasy–reality distinction: Children as naïve skeptics. Child development, 84(5), 1496-1510.