How to Handle the Santa Myth

Q: I never meant to perpetuate the myth of Santa but have found myself going along with it over the past few years as my kids learned about it from other sources. Now my kids, 4 and 6, are full-on Santa believers and I feel guilty that I’ve somehow fed into this lie, plus there’s so much more meaningful stuff to be learned about giving gifts at the holidays. I work with them to think about what to give their sibling and we give to families in need. Eventually they are going to have questions about why we give gifts when Santa takes care of that. How do I turn this around to make holiday gift giving a lesson about love and giving, etc. without them feeling betrayed that their mom was lying to them all this time?

A: Ah, the Santa Myth. When your kid comes home from school raving about Old St. Nick it’s hard to be the one to pop their innocent, sugarplum bubble. So you don’t, and just like that you’re an accomplice. Parents have found themselves supporting the Santa myth at least as far back as the 19 th century when children flocked to see store Santas, when Salvation Army Santas rang their bells on street corners, and
when “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” echoed through the neighborhood every Christmas Eve. So, as with many parenting quandaries, you’re in a big and crowded boat. By the time we’re adults we think of Santa and the accompanying lies with warm nostalgia and it might be hard to remember why we should be thoughtful about how we drop this bomb. Though Santa might seem commonplace or even silly to adults, to a child he is magical and beloved; someone to whom they write letters and for whom they’re on their best behavior; someone whose approval (and reward!) they desperately want. Someone who is very real and on a very tall pedestal. So how to best end this long con without crushing your child’s innocence and trust? There are of course many ways to go about this, but here are three options to appeal to three major camps. Probably any one of these yields better results than being told by an older kid on the playground:

  1. Get them on the team. Before they pull back the curtain on their own, tell them they’ve grown so much, in height and heart, and they are ready to become a Santa Claus. Walk them through what they know about how Santa operates. Draw out the details of how he makes people happy by giving them what they need or want… in secret. It’s not done for the glory or the gratitude (or the Christmas cookies by the fireplace). Engage them in talking about the good feeling that comes from helping people, something they’ve no doubt experienced on both sides. Then give them their first job as the World’s Newest Santa Claus: secretly find a person who needs something and get it to them without ever revealing your identity to anyone. While this method of revealing might be mind-blowing, the idea is it’s overridden by the good feeling that comes from being a partner in (an altruistic) crime.
  2. If you’re a fan of the scientific method, take a page from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and plant some healthy skepticism in your child about Santa by asking them thought-provoking questions (“We’ve heard about Santa, but how do we know he’s real?”). Support their natural curiosity by
    encouraging them to come up with ideas on how to figure out what’s really going on. There might be some ‘splaining to do about the last few years of Santa talk, but giving your child the experience of using unbiased observation of facts and critical thinking to help figure out the truth might be worth it.
  3. And for those who prefer to emphasize faith over science, you can lovingly acknowledge that you have had the honor of doing the gifts all this time, and explain that it’s a longstanding tradition that they might carry on as parents, because adding magic to a child’s life in this way is priceless.

There is value in encouraging selfless giving, and in scientific thinking, and in childhood magic. Mix-and- match if you like; these myth-busters aren’t mutually exclusive. Whichever road you take, consider reminding your child that some of their peers might still be believers and that different families handle this in different ways, so keeping the secret to himself might be thoughtful. Then give him a Christmas cookie – that softens any blow.