Psychologist Vanessa LoBue remembers her childhood Christmas all too well. She remembers how, as a seven-year-old kid, she used to stay up all night waiting for that red, jolly figure with the Ho-Ho-Ho- laugh to slither down their chimney to give her presents.
“The excitement of his imminent journey down my chimney had me feeling ecstatic - so much so that I stayed up all night waiting for his arrival,” she says. “I got out of bed so many times that my parents finally put me in their bed to keep me from sneaking downstairs to see if he had come yet.”
Of course it wasn’t a few years later when she discovered that her parents were behind the gifts and the miracles – and that a lie was handed out to her in broad daylight. That realization devastated her, naturally, but she moved on.
For parents who teach their children about Santa Claus, there’s nothing wrong with it, right? But what happens when such a lie damages the development of the child and the relationship between parents and children?
Is it alright for parents to feed their children the Santa Claus myth?
"I don't think it's a bad thing for kids to believe in the myth of someone trying to make people happy if they're behaving," says Dr. Matthew Lorber, a child psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Imagination is a normal part of development, and helps develop creative minds."
The Story of Santa Claus
Santa Claus, after all, is based on a real person – Saint Nicolas who lived in Asia Minor (now called Turkey) and had a reputation of helping the poor and giving gifts to some people who most needed them. Because of his kindness and his passion for helping people, he was eventually made a saint. He is called by different names – Saint Nicolas, Father Christmas, and Jolly Old Saint Nic to name a few. He can be found everywhere – and all year-round – not only on window displays during the holiday season but also on television and movie sets, on literature and books, and on posters and other paraphernalia.
"It's a real story, it's a real value and it's something that inspires children,” says Dr. Matthew. “That's the spirit of Christmas, though today's consumer culture may have drifted from that spirit a bit.”
Vanessa agrees, “Yes, the Santa myth is a lie, and all children eventually find out the truth. Yet research on the topic suggests that children tend to figure out the truth about Santa on their own around the age of seven - in most cases, there is no big reveal in which parents shamefully confess the truth to their sobbing and disappointed kids - and their reactions are generally positive.”
For Stephanie Wagner, a clinical psychologist at the NYU Child Study Center in New York, Santa Claus actually helps children develop their writing skills when they write letters to that jolly old man – and many kids hate writing. She says of parents teaching their kids about Santa Claus, "I don't think we could necessarily say it's a good thing, but I would certainly say it's not harmful.”
Breaking the Bad News
Eventually kids question whether Santa Claus is real or not. They either catch their parents in action or outgrow the myth. For children who asks their parents whether the red, fat guy is real or not, Dr. Matthew says that the best way is to ask their children if they still believe in Santa Claus. If they still do, this may not be the best time to tell the children that Santa Claus is not real, he adds.
"I don't think it's necessary for parents to decide upon a time to tell their children there is no Santa," says Jared Durtschi, an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy program at Kansas State University in Manhattan, New York. "As children develop, the magical thinking that is so common in kids, which allows them to so readily accept all the details of Santa Claus, will give way and they will soon figure it out on their own."
However, once the parents decide to tell their children about the truth, they should do so by emphasizing that there really is the spirit of Christmas – and add Saint Nicholas into the mix as well. Dr. Matthew says to tell the kids about the real reason for Christmas, about Jesus Christ, and about the importance of giving back to the community. "The spirit of giving to poor and to the needy, and the spirit of family and being together - that is universal," he says.
But there are parents who continue to lie to their children about Santa Claus. In this case, Dr. Matthew says to ask themselves whether their motivation is to make their children joyful or for their own gain.
“For me, the myth of Santa Claus was an exciting part of childhood, one that added a magical feeling to my holiday season - a feeling that has been missing for quite some time,” he says. “Sometimes even adults need a little bit of magic in their lives.”