In 2018, the measures parents can take to protect a child’s belief in Santa are impressively sophisticated. In addition to the old “Leave a note signed ‘S.C.’ alongside some half-eaten cookies” trick, and the slightly more advanced Oh-look-a-tuft-of-red-and-white-fabric-caught-on-the-fireplace! maneuver, parents can now also set their kids up to follow @Santa or @OfficialSanta on Twitter, quickly doctor webcam footage so that it appears to show Santa in their living room through an app, and make “video calls” to Santa through another app. They can even enable a Google Chrome extension that filters out any pages that might reveal the truth about Santa while kids browse the internet. (This article, I assume, would be detected as a threat, but let’s just make sure it gets filtered out: KIDS, SANTA ISN’T REAL.)
Still, even as the ways parents can shield their children from the truth evolve and multiply, perhaps the biggest threat to kids’ belief in Santa Claus is what it always has been: other kids. Two facts that find themselves perennially at odds during the holiday season are that (1) Santa Claus isn’t real, and (2) little kids love to announce when something is wrong or a lie (try asking a 3-year-old whether a puppy says “meow”). In other words, the very beneficiaries of parents’ painstaking efforts to uphold the myth are the same people most likely to spoil it. Add to the mix the popular notion that kids’ belief in Santa is integral to the magic of Christmas, and you’ve got one of the biggest headaches of the holiday season for parents.
Every December, Meghan Leahy can practically set her watch by the anxious moms and dads who write in to her Washington Post parenting advice column, desperately worried that their kids will have their Christmas spoiled—or that their kids will spoil other kids’ Christmases.
“They’re like, ‘My kids believe in Santa, but we’re going to go see my brother-in-law, whose kids don’t believe. They’re gonna tell my kids Santa’s not real!’” says Leahy, who has written her Post column for five years. “Especially when it’s in the family, I’ve seen ‘We’re not speaking to those cousins.’ We’re talking, like, icing out whole branches of a family.” Leahy has even heard from parents wondering whether it’s okay to pass out note cards at a family party asking guests not to spoil anything in front of their child, whose belief in Santa Claus they were “trying to preserve.”
It’s not hard to understand why some parents want their kids to believe in Santa Claus for as long as possible. Some say it’s imaginative play, which is good for kids (though arguably the benefits of imaginative play could be limited when kids think what’s imaginary is real). I’ve heard others say the Santa Claus tradition—specifically, tracking Santa’s journey across the globe and imagining him stopping in the homes of children in foreign countries—can help kids learn about geography and diversity. And some parents simply like having Santa’s Nice List and Naughty List system to conveniently invoke when their kids need incentives to behave themselves.
Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is that it’s just really hard for many parents to watch their kids grow up and mature out of what Leahy calls their “magical years”—a developmental phase lasting until about age 6, in which kids are still figuring out the rules of the physical world and often apply magical explanations to things they don’t quite understand. “They believe things until the world comes in and crushes them,” Leahy says. So watching kids grow out of Santa Claus can mean that watching them grow into other harsh truths is just around the corner.
Still, where Leahy draws the line is at parents trying to regulate the behaviors of people beyond their own households. “Usually what I advise is to not try to control too many other people,” Leahy says. “I tell parents to have conversations in their own families: ‘We’re going to Uncle Rob’s, and their family doesn’t dig Santa. They celebrate the holidays this way; we celebrate it that way.’ I coach parents to preempt the whole ‘calling Uncle Rob and giving a script to Uncle Rob and his kids’ thing.”
And the Uncle Robs of the world, who are less committed to upholding the collective Santa Claus fiction, can experience it as a real source of stress. Just ask those parents whose kids have never believed in Santa. Jennifer S. Brown, a novelist based near Boston, is Jewish, and when her son and daughter were little, “I said to them, ‘There’s this Santa thing a lot of kids believe in. It’s not true; Santa doesn’t make sense. But you don’t want to ruin it for other people.’”
“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.”
In households that aren’t willing to fully swear off the Santa tradition, Johnson advocates for either making clear from the get-go that Santa is a fun make-believe game or letting the truth about Santa reveal itself at the first moment it feels natural. “As soon as they start to show curiosity, as soon as they start to ask for the truth, you give it to them,” he advises. But, of course, not even Johnson’s Christmas season is safe from the occasional bit of family Santa drama. “My mother was a little upset that we weren’t going to do Santa with my son,” he says with a laugh. Last year, on Christmas morning, Johnson’s little boy found one mysterious gift under the tree from “Santa.”