Christmas is round the corner. But as parents, we know that Santa doesn’t exist, but does that mean sharing this myth with our children is really lying?
If Santa is not part of your family’s tradition or culture, then there is no need to even consider encouraging that belief in your child. But if you are struggling over whether or not to tell Santa’s story, you may take comfort in the notion that it doesn’t really harm children to imagine.
Santa Claus Is One of Many Myths
“Kids up to four, five, six, seven live in what we call fantasy life magic years,” says Dr. Benjamin Siegel, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. “They are influenced by what they see and hear around them. They get very excited about characters in their life that have special meaning for them.” Those characters include superheroes, monsters, animals and even Santa.
While there are many ways to encourage your children to be good, the story of Santa is just one of them. Siegel points out that Santa, for most families, is a jolly man with helpers who brings presents to children who are good. Sure, there are tales of coal in the stockings of naughty children, but it would be hard to find a child who actually received that on Christmas morning.
What parents should assess is the values they are trying to impart and whether this myth encourages those morals. “Every culture has a fairy tale or myth that belongs to its historical identity,” Siegel says. “If the myths are good and talk about sharing and helping your neighbor, then that’s really nice.”
For many families, the excitement of leaving cookies for Santa, watching through the window for his sleigh at night, waking up early to open presents and sharing all that goes into believing in Santa Claus are special and unique to their given family. That tradition is why many parents share the story of Santa–because that’s what they learned growing up.
Rina Roy, a mother of two boys, introduced Santa to her sons because it was natural to do so, even if it felt wrong at times.
“It never seemed like an option not to tell my kids that there was a Santa,” she says. “But, once I did, I was surprised to find myself feeling bad about it. I was lying to my child. There he was looking up at me, expecting me to explain the world to him, and I was telling him that a fat man in a red suit who snuck into our house once a year was as real as the green grass outside. To top it off, my firstborn was scared of Santa for a few years.”
As her son outgrew his fear of the man in the red suit, Jorgensen realized why parents tell their children about Saint Nick in the first place: magic. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? Presents of every kind appearing under the tree,” she says. “Adults don’t get that kind of magic. How wonderful that they can have that.”
Santa Isn’t Just One Story
If you decide that Santa Claus is going to be part of your family’s Christmas tradition, there are many ways to tell his story. You may be surprised to find a myriad of Santa books waiting to be read at the local library.
There are books about environmentally conscious Santas and about animals, even dinosaurs that dress as Santa. There are Santa tales featuring popular characters like Corduroy and Curious George. Many parents may stick to the traditional “The Night Before Christmas,” which now comes in many variations. You can also check out illustrated children’s Bibles to provide a religious perspective, or find a book on the history of Saint Nicholas.
There is no right or wrong way to tell the Santa story. “Some holiday books are touching and poignant, others are fun and frivolous. It depends on the child,” says Marisa Conner, Youth Services Coordinator for the Baltimore County Public Libraries. “We find that for families it’s a very personal thing. A lot of parents want to pass on what they believed as a child, what they were excited about.” Whatever book you choose, the point is to encourage your child to dream.
“As an educator and as a person, I find that fantasy books do engage the imagination,” Conner says. “Children learn at some point what’s make-believe and not. That’s the fun of life. It makes us see different personalities.”
When They Find Out
Parents worry that they will have to break the news to their children and shatter their whole vision of Christmas. However, many children come to this realization on their own around age seven or eight, Siegel says. And when they do, they are basically unscathed. Siegel cites a study that revealed that children who learned the truth may have been upset, but not nearly as upset as the parents.
“Most kids do fine when they learn a myth is not real,” he says. “Sometimes parents feel very badly because they want their kids to continue to believe in Santa Claus. Maybe parents like the myth because it makes them feel good, or because kids get disappointed in them when they find out the truth. Kids realize that parents aren’t so powerful, but that happens in adolescence anyway.”
Jorgensen admits dreading the day her sons will find out. “When I thought about my sons not believing the other day, I suddenly felt sad. When they don’t believe, then it changes Christmas for me too, doesn’t it? Completely. I lose the magic too.” However, Jorgensen also realizes that providing the Christmas magic involves a lot of work, and it will be nice to have a break from sneaking around late at night to have everything in place for children with big expectations.
Talking Through the Disappointment
Whether your kids find out on their own, from an older child on the playground, or from you, there are ways to handle the disappointment.
If they are upset that you lied, acknowledge their disappointment and ask about their feelings, Siegel recommends. You can explain that Santa is a myth that your family has chosen to share. “Santa Claus is part of Christmas and we believe in Christmas,” you can tell them. Siegel recommends comparing the experience to the tooth fairy or Easter bunny, and encourage children to remember the fun and excitement that made the event special.
Children should also have the opportunity to define what Santa Claus means to them. They may surprise parents when they reveal that they knew all along, but still had fun playing along with the game.
Until their children catch on, parents may just want to enjoy the magical world of Santa that they have helped to create. Sure, Santa may not really exist, but believing in him for a few years can be tremendously fun, even for parents.