“I was really terrified, a lot, that my son was going to say something to the wrong kid,” she adds, “and I was going to have some parent just up in arms at me.”
Brown, 50, describes her son as a staunch atheist and a truth-teller—so, of course, in time that happened. On two occasions in his childhood (that she knows of), he revealed the truth about Santa to kids his age who believed, one of whom was his best friend in kindergarten. The friend’s mother then came to Brown with the news. “I was mortified,” she remembers. “I was just like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’"
Now that her children are 13 and 15, they’re mostly out of the proverbial danger zone. But even to this day, Brown says, “there are people who are really cautious around my kids.”
Ellen Kottke of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, likes to keep the birth of Jesus at the center of her family’s Christmas celebrations, so her three kids have never been raised to believe that Santa was dropping off presents at their house. But now that her oldest daughter, Harper, is 8, they’re starting to navigate some delicate situations: Last year, Harper came home from school and announced that when her friend Cameron had asked whether Santa was real, she’d set the record straight. “I said, ‘Well, honey, I really appreciate you trying to tell Cameron about what we believe.’ And as a first grader, sometimes that’s really hard,” Kottke says. “‘But,’ I said, ‘that’s not really our place. It’s Cam’s mommy and daddy’s job to say those things.’”
Kottke doesn’t know whether Harper’s friend was disappointed by the news. “Maybe I failed as a mom in not following up with the parent,” Kottke says with a laugh. “But I just said, ‘Let’s choose not to talk about that anymore with her. And if it does come up, let’s just direct her back to her mommy and daddy.’”
David Kyle Johnson is the author of the 2015 book The Myths That Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions That Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back) and a viral 2012 Psychology Today essay titled “Say Goodbye to the Santa Claus Lie,” which argued against parents’ active efforts to perpetuate the Santa Claus myth because it could erode parental authority and stunt critical thinking. (“You should be proud if your 5-year-old figures out that Santa Claus is not real on their own!” Johnson told me in an interview. “In childhood development, if a kid gets to any other milestone early, we celebrate it.”)
Johnson—perhaps it goes without saying—is also someone who receives a lot of letters from people with strong opinions about Christmas traditions.
Most of the letters he gets are from “people just calling me a Scrooge or a Grinch, that kind of stuff,” he says, as well as “people who tell me, ‘I believed in Santa and I turned out fine.’” But after his essay about Santa Claus came out six years ago, he noticed something he wasn’t expecting about the letters he received in response: Other parents who weren’t so hot on the Santa Claus tradition were filling up his inbox. “I got an equal, if not actually greater, amount of mail from parents who felt the same way [I do] and who felt under attack by their other family members who don’t,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a silent majority, but there’s this silent large group out there of parents who don’t [perpetuate the Santa myth]. It’s just that it’s so taboo that everybody who doesn’t do it doesn’t tell anyone.”