Should Parents Tell Their Children the Truth About Santa?

For many people, Santa is a cherished part of their holiday traditions. They remember writing letters and mailing them to the North Pole, leaving out milk and cookies, and running downstairs on Christmas morning to see what Santa had left for them under the tree.

However, ask a few adults about how they reacted when they found out Santa wasn’t real, and you’ll see far different emotions. Some were sad, some were angry, and almost all of them felt that learning the truth about Santa ushered them into a new era of childhood, one where adults couldn’t be trusted completely.

Trust, Truth-Telling, and Fantasy vs. Reality

The issue boils down to whether it’s appropriate for parents to tell their children to believe in falsehoods. Sooner or later, the child discovers that Santa Claus isn’t ‘real’, but during the most formative years, small children are generally inept at distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Developing this ability is extremely important to mental growth, and the question parents needs to be asking themselves is whether, when their child achieves this ability to distinguish fact from fiction, the child should have to cope with the strange concept that the parent has told a lie.

Any parent who has tried to comfort a small child back to sleep when the little one is having terrifying thoughts about the Big Bad Wolf knows that our best tactic is to assure the child that the Big Bad Wolf is not real. In order for the child to believe us about this, he must trust us as sources of truthful information. Our role becomes rather complicated if, on the one hand, we tell that child that one fantasy is false while we teach them that another is true. What message do we give about reality by saying that monsters are imaginary but that Santa Claus is real? Maria Montessori strongly cautioned against leading children to believe that fantasy was reality, believing that it made it harder for children to distinguish between the two and led to issues of trust later on.

My children trust me to care for them, love them, protect them, and answer their questions truthfully. I don’t take that trust lightly. Rather, I go out of my way to show them that I am trustworthy and that I mean what I say. This means that they can come to me for information about any subject, knowing that I will do my best to answer honestly, or to help them find the correct answer if I don’t know it myself. Why should the myth of Santa Claus be exempt from the trust pact that I have with my children?

Is the Santa Myth Necessary?

“But it’s fun to believe in Santa when you’re little. I don’t want to be a killjoy and spoil that for my kid,” some parents are apt to argue. That leads to another question: Do kids have to believe that Santa is real in order to fully enjoy Christmas? Since most parents don’t tell their children the truth (even when asked directly), how can they be sure that not knowing is such a bad thing?

The holidays are full of wonderful, meaningful traditions. From Advent calendars to baking cookies, from caroling to decorating the tree, children can participate in just about every aspect of Christmas. If they know that presents come from family and friends, does it make gift-opening less exciting? In my own household, where my children do know the truth about Santa, I can assure you that they rip open the presents as joyfully and gleefully as any children I’ve ever seen.

Truth is More Interesting than Fiction

If you have determined, as I have, that it is not in your child’s best interest to pass on the myth of ‘real Santa’, you will meet with a big dilemma everywhere you go during the holiday season. The commercialization of Christmas has put a Santa Claus on every TV channel, in every shop window, and into the minds of nearly all children. You can’t realistically ignore Santa Claus. Your child will be coming to you with questions, rest assured. You can be prepared to answer those questions well if you do your research now. I hope the following information will be of interest and use to you:

In the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm and the team of Asbornsen and Moe set to work collecting the fragments of Northern European fairy tales into collected bodies of literature. From the work of these interesting men, we get the creative but often shockingly violent tales of Cinderella, Snow White, The Three Billy-Goats Gruff and the like. The eminent philologist, Professor Thomas Shippey, has recently written about the motives behind these men’s endeavors. Far from attempting to invent stories for little children, they were doing a kind of archaeological rescue work to preserve the last remnants of Germany and Scandinavia’s most ancient folklore. The cultural roots of these seemingly bizarre tales, populated with dwarves, elves and trolls, go very deep.

A single example will suffice to explain the historical importance of this work. Let us look at the idea of dwarves. The Disney cartoon Snow White introduced most mid-20th century Americans to the idea of short, bearded men who work in mines. What few people realize is that this is an idea with amazingly antique origins. Classic Dark Ages and Medieval literature is full of dwarves. Everything from the Norse Sagas of Iceland to the Celtic Arthurian legends feature dwarves intermixed with ‘normal’ people, without any hint of this being fantastical. The research of men like Professor Shippey suggests that, rather than being a creature of imagination, a dwarf may very well have been a type of human being – possibly a race of people with congenital dwarfism.

What does this mean for us? It means that many popular myths of our day – fairy tales, legends – spring out of truth. The stories may be embellished over centuries of oral storytelling, but they arise from real people and real situations. That is not fantasy – it is anthropology. Perhaps by encouraging your child in the pursuit of whole truths, you can right the mistakes of the past. Who knows; you may end up with a world-class linguist, archaeologist or anthropologist in the family!

The Real Santa Claus

For Christians, Christ is the central figure of Christmas. In many modern Christian homes, Santa Claus has been allowed to vie with the Nativity as the focus of Christmas, and in most non-Christian homes, Santa is the unchallenged symbol of the day. All parents must decide for themselves which traditions they wants to pass on to their children, but again, the obligation is ours to choose wisely. If we decide not to pass on the Santa myth as truth, we have an option to view this old tradition as an exciting learning opportunity for our children.

As is the case with the stranger-than-fiction world of fairy tales, the character of Santa Claus has rather fascinating origins. Why not share these facts with your child, and together you can decide how you would like to think about Santa Claus:

  • Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th century Christian bishop who became beloved for his acts of charity to the poor.
  • The Pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe celebrated a winter festival called Yule. Ancient Norse children set their boots by the fire filled with carrots and straw to feed Slepnir, the flying horse of the Norse god, Odin. Their legend was that Odin would fly by and leave gifts in the boots in return for the horse feed.
  • In Finland, people had the folktale of Joulupukki, a peculiar character with horns who delivered gifts on Christmas Eve.
  • The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, a green-robed sailor, is the origin of the name ‘Santa Claus’.
  • The English conception of Father Christmas dates back to the 1600’s. He is a jovial, rotund figure garbed in fur-trimmed green robes.
  • These and other European myths combined to create the Victorian-era Santa Claus of the United States, which has become the commercial Santa Claus of today.
  • As conscientious parents and teachers, we strive to encourage youth appreciation of world cultures. By taking this approach, Santa Claus becomes an educational celebration of varied culture rather than a debate about truth and falsehood. By introducing children to the concept of Santa Claus as an old and fascinating myth, you can share the idea in a good way, without having to tell them to believe in something that isn’t true.

    Few of us would have the goal of teaching children that Odin and his flying horse really exist. Rather, we come to such subjects with an enjoyment of the charm of antiquity. We can help children to tap into this source of pleasure as well, while keeping their formative years firmly grounded in the truth. Far from killing joy, we are planting great seeds of intellectual vigor, inquisitiveness and a love of learning.

    You might also be interested in a follow-up to this post, called Taking a Look at Santa Again.