Santa Claus: Magical or misleading?

Published on Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Last updated on Monday, 22 November 2021

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Research on the benefit of believing in Santa Claus is sparse but it is not harmful for children to believe in Santa, in fact the myth can spark great joy and wonder for children. And, while there are mixed views on whether perpetuating the myth is magical or misleading, it is widely accepted that when asked, it’s best not to directly lie to children about his existence.

As Christmas sparkles begin to appear in November, early childhood educators will be asking questions about their celebrations, and how to recognise different beliefs to promote cultural inclusivity. As Santa Claus is embedded in the Christmas tradition, families may seek guidance on how to handle the Santa myth.

Many families worry about whether they should encourage their children’s belief in the physical reality of Santa, about the potential impact of lying to them and what to do when children realise Santa is not real. The “Santa-lie,” discussion has claimed that it could lead to distrust of parents.

So, what should families do?

There is no evidence that belief, and eventual disbelief in Santa, affects parental trust in any significant way. As children develop, they gain the tools to ferret out the truth and engaging with the Santa story may even give them a chance to exercise these abilities.

Understanding the Santa myth

Belief in mythological characters such as Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy is a tradition that many adults encourage. For many families these fictional characters are part of their own tradition of childhood that they may want to continue with their children. It’s not unusual for children to be encouraged to believe in other fantasy characters such as fairies, superheroes and animals that talk.

These are often supported by popular culture and involve adults assisting a child’s participation in fantasy. Children’s belief in fantasy figures such as Santa Claus appears to be the strongest between the ages of three and eight.

Last year, even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made international news when she recognised the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny as essential workers during the pandemic, saying in a press conference that both creatures were free to deliver their gifts during the pandemic.

Belief in the magical world of Santa is part of the festivities that for many families forges a positive connection to Christmas-time, conjuring up a sense of wonder and joy for children and adults. Adults may maintain the fiction of Santa to sustain and build their own important family traditions.

Family traditions establish a foundation for values and strengthen family bonds. They provide a sense of identity and belonging and can inspire positive feelings and memories family members can share. Family traditions also provide a sense of continuity across generations. They are a way of transferring the family's values, history, and culture from one generation to the next.

Many families go to great lengths to support the Santa myth – think of carrots bought for reindeers, cookie crumbs and presents magically appearing on Christmas day – so it can be very difficult for young children to question the evidence presented to them.

There are benefits to believing in Santa

Is it good to believe in Santa? There are benefits to believing in Santa Claus. It can create a positive association with Christmas-time that is likely to last a lifetime. And, as well as sparking joy, it can create an avenue for creativity, imagination and fantasy play. This can benefit a child’s development by encouraging skills such as learning to focus, working together, practicing social skills, problem-solving and creating new possibilities.

Even the simple act of writing a letter to Santa is an opportunity for young children to articulate their hopes and thoughts – and practice writing or drawing.

Fantasy is a normal and healthy part of child development. Fantasy play usually begins around age two and peaks during the preschool years when children begin to interact with other children their own age, and gain access to more toys and resources.

Approximately 10–17 per cent of preschooler play behaviour can be grouped under this category. You can recognise this type of play by the child’s continuous verbalisation of a state of pretend, meaning the child does not stay completely in character and feels the need to continue explaining what he or she is pretending to be or do.

The Washington Post referred to research in developmental psychology supporting the belief in Santa, claiming that: “Believing in impossible beings such as Santa Claus may exercise children’s counterfactual reasoning skills. The kind of thinking involved in imagining how nine reindeer could fly through the sky carrying a heavy sleigh may well be the same kind of thinking required for imagining a solution to global warming or a way to cure a disease.

This kind of thinking – engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible – is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the Internet.”

The article by Professor Jacqueline Woolley, chair of the Department of Psychology at University of Texas at Austin, reported that the myth of Santa exercises children’s deductive reasoning abilities and their use of evidence. With the greatest benefit to children’s cognitive and emotional development arising from the discovery that Santa Claus is not, in fact, a real physical being.

Woolley describes the discovery process for children finding out that Santa isn’t real is often more gradual. In fact, there is often a protracted period during which children become increasingly less sure about Santa’s existence. Toward the end of this period, children may actually look for evidence to confirm their suspicions.

Telling the truth about Santa Claus

Children will stop believing in Santa at different ages. A common concern for families is that lying ultimately will erode children’s trust in their parents. While studies say otherwise, when a child asks the question “Is Santa real?” it is a conversation that needs to be thoughtful, honest and managed.

Many children will figure it out for themselves when they start to notice the story doesn't quite add up. For instance, they might stay up late trying to catch Santa delivering presents. Questioning what's real and what's not is a normal part of a child’s development.

One study found that children generally discover the truth on their own at age seven. And their reaction to learning the truth about Santa was reported as a “predominantly positive reaction”. Parents, however, described themselves as “predominantly sad” in reaction to their child’s discovery.

Psychologist and Australian parenting expert Dr. Justin Coulson believes children should be told the truth from the earliest age, however, for families who wants their child to believe in Santa he offers this advice:

“I would suggest letting your child believe in Santa when they’re young and when they first start asking questions, encourage them to think about it critically.

Is there really a man who is riding around on a sleigh with magic reindeer who goes to every house in the world in one night? Can he really know everyone’s behaviour? Can one man eat that many cookies in one night? Let them decide for themselves. No child is going to hate Christmas if you let them figure out the truth on their own. Everything they loved about Christmas isn’t gone, the presents are just coming from a different person.”

When families do reveal the truth, they can promote the spirit of Christmas is real, and tell them how Santa Claus is based on the real St. Nicholas who became famous for giving gifts and money to the poor. It’s a great opportunity to promote a child’s kindness, gratitude and generosity.

Resources and further reading

The Conversation: Why it’s OK for kids to believe in Santa and Lies about Santa? They could be good for your child

Family Education: How to Tell Your Kids About Santa: A Step-by-Step Guide

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