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    The Santa Dilemma

    “Is Santa real?” That is the question of the season. On its heels: “Does he really come down the chimney?” “Do reindeer really fly?” “Is the same Santa that makes all the presents the one who is at the mall?” “What are elves?”

    And thus, the dilemma presents itself to parents each year: to tell the truth or not.

    (Credit: Norman Rockwell  Source: 


    In six Christmases, I’ve chosen to stand on the literal side of the fence. Santa Claus isn’t a real man that comes down your chimney (okay, that’s just a bit creepy of a thing to have children thinking anyway, isn’t it, really?), living in the coldest place on earth, with a bunch of small workers called elves, riding an enormous magical sleigh pulled by flying reindeer all around the world in one night to every child’s home and leaving them presents based on his determination of year-round childhood “badness” or “goodness” (heck, we even avoid those judgment calls in our daily parenting).  I just don’t like to tell my kids that he IS, when – he’s not.


    Now, I don’t say things to my children things like, “Other kids’ parents tell them that Santa is real but it’s really just THEM giving their kids presents”.  I don’t want my kids to be the “revealer of parental untruths” to children whose parents may be riding the Santa-is-real train. I’m not out to squash the spirit of Santa. Really, the spirit of Santa is okay with me. It’s more the concocting layers of false “evidence” (cookies half eaten, left by the fireplace, “footprints” in the snow, etc.), in order to convince children (who by their very nature are very literal and want to believe their parents) of the really realness of Santa, that rubs me the wrong way. I prefer to just treat him as part of the holiday landscape that he is, without creating stories; without eroding trust. 


    When direct questions about his realness come up, I turn the conversation to them – allowing them to formulate their own opinions, like:

    Question: Does Santa deliver all the presents in one night?

    Answer: Do you think that’s possible to do? How many kids are there in the world? How big is the world? How fast would he have to fly to make that possible? 

    Question: Does Santa come down everyone’s chimney?

    Answer: Does everyone have a chimney? What about kids who don’t?


    Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Scrooge. I really do love Christmas; it’s my favorite holiday. I enjoy decorating, putting up the tree, singing Christmas songs, buying and making gifts for people, and baking cookies (especially baking cookies!). Christmas is warm and magical and wonderful.


    But what I don’t like about Christmas is the untruthful-business surrounding all-things-Santa: the acceptance, even expectation, that lying to children at this time of year is appropriate and encouraged (I’ve had strangers come up to my children and warn them they’d “better be good this year, or Santa won’t bring them anything for Christmas”, followed by a knowing wink to me).  I’m simply not comfortable with telling my children that being truthful is important – only to lie to them about Santa.


    Telling children Santa is real might be festive, magical, fun, or even helpful to shape behavior around the holidays, but to me, the cost of wrapping the fun of the holiday in a package of deception isn’t one I’m willing to take on, just for the sake of not killing the magic.


    Christmas IS magical because of actual, real things: picking the most perfect present for someone you love and watching their eyes light up when they open it on Christmas morning. Christmas IS magical when you’re listening to Enya singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel and you get chills.  Christmas is magical when you’re walking around in the crisp, frosty air, look at the Christmas lights twinkling in the newly fallen snow. Christmas IS magical when you wake in the morning to beautifully wrapped presents under the tree and the smell of cinnamon.   


    I don't want my children to experience the let down of “finding out the truth”. I want them to always have real reasons to look forward to Christmas morning, even beyond the age of Santa belief, real reasons to behave, and above all, real knowledge that when their parents tell them about something, they can trust it, and believe it. So this year, like others, I’ll treat Santa as another adornment of Christmas – just like the tree, the lights, the stockings, the presents, and the music.  All of these things can be magical – are magical – without the baggage of untruth.


    So, how do you handle the Santa dilemma? Are you a Santatheist? Or do you convince your children that Santa is real? 

    Posted: Nov 20 2010, 20:29 by kelly | Comments (25) RSS comment feed |
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    Filed under: Children | Parenting | Seasons


    Amber Canada said:

    AmberWe 'do' Santa.  But I wouldn't say that I 'convince' my kids Santa is real. My 5-year-old really, really WANTS to believe. I think this is not uncommon, actually. My closest friend doesn't 'do' Santa but her daughter decided he's real, anyway. Kids are literal, but they can be very literal about stuff that isn't real.

    I don't do the whole 'good' and 'bad' thing. But I do letters and cookies. Mostly because I have very fond memories of it from my own childhood. I wouldn't say that Santa eroded my trust in my parents. Their divorce and my adolescence did that, Santa didn't even factor in. So I'm not all that concerned about my own kids in that regard.

    For what it's worth, I don't teach my kids to be truthful. Children lie to their parents, I think, because they fear their parents' reaction to the truth. Through my parenting style I try to avoid fostering an atmosphere where my kids would need to lie, which feels more effective to me than actually setting a no lying policy. Plus, I'm not about to give up my clandestine chocolate eating, so I can't very well teach them not to lie when I engage in subterfuge to hide my treat consumption.

    # November 20 2010, 23:27

    kelly United States said:

    kellyChocolate - hahahahaha Amber, I think I remember reading a post you wrote about that once! ;)

    I fully admit that part of my Santa "philosophy" comes from my memories of childhood - being SO excited, anticipatory, even a little scared about Santa coming down the chimney. My parents went whole hog - no presents under the tree uintil Xmas morning, cookies with bites taken out, they even decorated the tree xmas night. I couldn't sleep.  It was SO magical, and I BELIEVED it, really really believed it, so much so that I remember in 5th grade (yes, you read that correctly) kids teasing me for believing in Santa. I'd come home, and ask my mother, and she'd say: (wait for it...) Of COURSE Santa is real. Sigh.  When the reveal came - when I caught my parents sneaking presents under the tree, when they told me what they did - and then asked me to help convince (lie to) my sisters, I was crushed.

    Certainly, I think they carried it too far.  But it had an effect on me - one that I don't want my children to experience, even a little - at least not coming from me.

    # November 21 2010, 10:33

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    # November 21 2010, 11:57

    Dionna @ Code Name: Mama United States said:

    Dionna @ Code Name: MamaI had just dusted off my post on this subject from last year and scheduled it for a reappearance. It will go live 11/29, and I've already added a link to your post. My view is pretty unpopular - we don't do Santa. We'll be emphasizing that he is the *spirit* of giving, but I won't have a problem telling Kieran he is a story. I don't want to be a "scrooge" either, but I just have fundamental problems with actively building up the fantasy of some dude that delivers presents to the "good" kids (p.s. callback to Lauren/Hobo Mama, who tagged you in her Sunday Surf post).
    And lest anyone think I'm criticizing their parenting - I'm not! This is about what works for *my* family. I have no problem with other families who do things their own way!

    # November 21 2010, 16:29

    Momma Jorje United States said:

    Momma JorjeSantatheist! OMG I love it! I enjoy the gift giving and family togetherness that comes with <I>Giftmas</i>. I think my daughter, now 12, still believes in Santa. Honestly, SHE wants to leave cookies for Santa. We always leave fudge or cookies, but we leave water because milk will get nasty sitting out. I really do clean the plate after she goes to bed.

    However, kids at her school just last year (or perhaps it was the year before) argued that Santa wasn't real. This upset her a bit. I don't want to shatter that magical idea, either. Whenever she has come to me and asked "Is Santa real?" I honestly approach it just like "Is God real?"

    "Well, sweetie, what do YOU believe?" because what SHE believes is ALL that matters. I tell her that it doesn't matter what any one else thinks or believes. All that matters is what she believes. She has, so far, been content with that answer. We do "Giftmas morning" presents from Santa. Shoot, we do Easter morning, too. And from an Athiest standpoint, it is all about the fun and prizes!

    I don't feel that the Santa charade was to blame for any mistrust in my relationships with my parents. I can see that it could be lying or even withholding the truth, but I don't see it as terribly harmful.

    Excellent point on the "good or bad" thing, though. If I don't praise my child, why would I want Santa to do it?? Oh, we even write to NorthPole.com where Santa writes back within a couple of days! He even tackles the "no chimney" thing. Eh, its all in fun.

    # November 21 2010, 17:57

    Lauren @ Hobo Mama United States said:

    Lauren @ Hobo MamaThat's so interesting to hear your own experience, Kelly. That really does sound over the top, and I can see why you'd be disappointed in them after being lied to, point blank, when you were old enough to be invited into the story.

    My parents did less of the fantasy, but we did do leaving out cookies, and presents were put out after we went to sleep, and about half of them were "from Santa." But it was kind of a gradual eroding of belief in it, for me, nothing overly traumatic. There was a period where I chose to re-believe (~7 years old), but then I stopped for good. I did, out of courtesy, keep up the pretense around friends of mine who still believed.

    I've decided not to make too much of a big deal about it. I think I'll be as open as I can that Santa's a special story, without trying to force Mikko into a truth he's not ready for. (I'm already arguing with him that bad dreams aren't real, and that's not working, either.) I don't want to pretend my gifts are from Santa or put out cookies, but I'll let the legend exist apart from our family's specific participation. But we'll see how that works!

    # November 21 2010, 19:16

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting Canada said:

    Annie @ PhD in ParentingWe do Santa, the tooth fairy, etc. However, we don't build it up as them being real. In fact, for a while my kids thought that Santa Claus and Grampa were the same person (called him "Grampa Santa Claus") because my dad has a big white beard. So I think they juts assumed he dressed up on Christmas and put out presents for them while they slept, which is partially true, I guess. I'm pretty sure if asked outright, they would say that none of those mythical characters are "real", but that it is fun to believe in them, just like it is fun to talk of unicorns and things like that.

    As for the way I found out about Santa Claus not being real, it was by reading an article on this exact topic in my mom's Good Housekeeping magazine. I think I was 7 years old. I read the whole article from start to finish and then walked into the kitchen and proudly announced my discovery to my mother.

    # November 21 2010, 23:09

    Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves Canada said:

    Marilyn @ A Lot of LovesWe do Santa but I'm pretty casual about it. I don't spend a lot of time talking about Santa, not have I discussed how he gets into the house or that he would leave coal if they were bad and toys if they were good. The fact is, there's a lot of Santa in today's literature and shows. When Christmas approaches, Santa is everywhere. I'm not interested in pumping him up to the kids but neither do I want to take away their belief.

    They *want* to believe. Very badly. Just as they wanted to believe that Mickey and Goofy were real when we went to Disneyland. My son asks me if they're real and I always respond with "What do you think?". He never responds and I think that's because he doesn't want to break the dream. That's fine with me.

    I remember believing in Santa. And I don't remember every having an issue when I didn't believe in Santa.

    For us, the true meaning of Christmas is a Christian celebration and being with family...but that's another story.

    # November 21 2010, 23:48

    kelly United States said:

    kelly@Dionna - I'm looking forward to reading your article!

    @Momma J - "What do YOU believe"... that's a good approach for life.

    @Lauren - that's pretty much what we do. I don't actively attempt to disprove or dissuade, but I don't take steps to encourage belief either - the spirit & idea of Santa isn't what bothers me, its the perpetuation of untruth in order to keep a child believing, kwim?

    @Annie - "...none of those mythical characters are "real", but that it is fun to believe in them, just like it is fun to talk of unicorns and things like that." Good answer.  It's very hard to decide how to answer when you want a child to keep being "childlike", yet you want to be truthful. Allowing them to lead the conversation is how I balance the prevalence of Santa in our culture with my desire to be truthful.

    @Marilyn - it is hard to balance the truth with a desire to keep innocence of childhood fantasy intact.

    # November 22 2010, 08:28

    Jennie United States said:

    JennieI remember when I found out about Santa and I felt betrayed and lied to.  I yelled at my mom, "You LIED to me!"  She said she'll never forget how bad she felt.  

    My little girl is 21 months old, and we read stories about Santa but beyond that we don't talk about it much yet.  I'm so glad this post is here to guide me though because I've been searching about how to handle it.  I don't want to lie to her but I want her to love the magic of the season too!

    Thank you!

    # November 22 2010, 08:58

    Kathleen (amoment2think) Canada said:

    Kathleen (amoment2think)Thanks for this post, Kelly. It has really got me thinking. I totally see your point, but I also totally see the other perspective.

    I think we will take the 'believe what you want to believe' approach. I suspect we will 'do' Santa, in the sense that I love Christmas stockings and I do love the 'magic' of believing in Santa, if that is what she wants. But I won't take her to see Santa until she is old enough to ask. And if she never asks, then we won't go. If she asks to write a letter to Santa, then we will. If not, we won't. She is going to hear about Santa, and I will let her form her own opinions.

    But who knows how that approach changes over time to match what seems right at the time.

    # November 22 2010, 11:49

    Rachael @ The Variegated Life United States said:

    Rachael @ The Variegated LifeI practice Buddhism. My husband is an atheist. Both of us were raised Catholic, however, and we do celebrate Christmas. We've been talking about what Christmas means to us, then, as a family of non-Christians. We haven't even gotten to Santa Claus yet, though. Our boy is 2 years old. Do we need to have a Santa policy yet, or can it wait until next year? I guess it's up to him, really: we'll need to respond when he brings up the topic, I suppose? And, another question: How have the grandparents figured into your approach to Santa?

    Thanks so much for this post! Yours is an approach I'll be discussing with my husband.

    # November 22 2010, 17:00

    Alison @ BluebirdMama Canada said:

    Alison @ BluebirdMamaWe don't really do Santa here either, partly because my parents never did so it feels like too much faking because I have no direct experience with believing. For me, part of the deal was that our family was Mennonite and many of the eastern European traditions focus on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Pretty hard to believe in Santa when you opened all your presents the night before.
    I agree that the deception bothers me a little bit but I don't think it is hugely damaging. I respond to questions with "What do you believe?" and usually say "Some people believe this and some people believe that." and leave it up to him.
    We approach Santa, the tooth fairy, easter bunny, magic, fairies and sprites the same way which is that it is fun to imagine and that it enriches our lives but that my kids are the final determiners of whether something can be real if they just believe hard enough.

    # November 23 2010, 15:19

    Deb Chitwood @ Living Montessori Now United States said:

    Deb Chitwood @ Living Montessori NowGreat thoughts, Kelly! I always went with the honest approach with my kids, too. We just embraced Santa as a wonderful story, and our kids never believed Santa was real. My parents did the same thing, so I grew up believing Santa was just a fun, magical story. I was happy with that and didn’t worry about passing it on to my kids. Christmas is magical anyway. And my whole family loves a great Santa movie as much as everyone else!

    # November 23 2010, 22:15

    Karen Bannan from NaturalAsPossibleMom.com United States said:

    Karen Bannan from NaturalAsPossibleMom.comAMEN! I feel the SAME way. I hate lying to my kids, and won't do it. I usually deflect all questions to the hubby.

    # November 25 2010, 01:20

    makingahomeandfamily.com said:

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    # November 28 2010, 09:44

    Crystal Canada said:

    CrystalWe minimize Santa, talk about the St. Nicholas story and mostly about Jesus, etc because we are Catholic. My kids talk about Santa but they seem to think it's a story like the ones we read together or one of their cartoon story lines. My 4 year old loves to tell stories but he also has an unusually firm grasp of what is reality and what is fantasy. I don't think they would "ruin" it for any other kids but if I outright asked they would probably tell me it's all pretend.

    # November 29 2010, 11:15

    kelly United States said:

    kelly@Rachael - re: the grandparents... it's hard when not everyone is "on board" with our philosophy on Santa.  Particularly if they're far on the other end of the specttrum (i.e. bad kids get coal, only good kids get presents) - but we let everyone know where we stand on Santa - that the spirit of Santa is fine, we just prefer not to reference his "realness" - particularly not as a enticement to be a "good kid". For the most part, this approach has worked.

    When issues come up, I think Alison's response is a good one: "Some people believe this and some people believe that."

    That works for lots of things in life, doesn't it?  We all do our best to instill our values in our children, to show them the ways we think are best, but in the end, the decisions about their own mind are up to them...

    # December 01 2010, 09:46

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    # December 05 2010, 09:12

    Alan United States said:

    AlanI never really wanted to lie about Santa to my kids. OTOH I don’t think it’s really a huge deal if someone else does (heck, millions of kids in the U.S. at least are told fantastical stories every week in Sunday school and assured those are true, LOL).

    # December 08 2010, 10:23

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    # December 13 2010, 09:46

    naturalparentsnetwork.com said:

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    Family Traditions + To Santa Or Not To Santa  |  Natural Parents Network

    # December 14 2010, 08:06

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    # December 14 2010, 09:47

    Johanna James Edwards United States said:

    Johanna James Edwards   I really love all of the posts here on the site because I have really been pondering all of this santa stuff this year. I grew up believing in santa and don’t remember when I found out or even what I thought. Then in my late teens joined a religious group who did not teach or believe in santa or any other fairy tale character for that matter. Now I have a 6 year old who I try to teach truth a reality of life. I in no way follow my past religious teachings yet not sure I really want to teach her this lie. This year "the Elf on the Shelf" came to our household (What a job he is for me) If you don’t know about this Christmas tradition please read about it so you will know what I am talking about. Anyhow, you adopt him name him and every night he reports back to santa on your children’s behavior. And every morning the children look for him in his new spot in your house. Hopefully I remembered to move him or what will I tell my daughter, I said he was a job! Clyde (That is the name my daughter chose for her elf) cannot be touched by the children or he will loose his magical power. I had to make up that parents were allowed to touch him because a school friend came over and kept shaking the shelf until poor Clyde fell over! The children are allowed to talk with him and let him know anything they want. I saw my daughter sit by Clyde with a Museum Tour catalog and tell Clyde all of the many educational toys she wanted. I felt so bad watching her knowing that she was not getting 99% of the things she had talk with Clyde about. I love educational toys too but needs and wants are two different things. All I can think about as I see her sincerely ask him for all of these toys that she is not going to be getting is, what I am really teaching her. Will she feel as if she was not good enough for him to tell santa to bring the toys she wanted?
    No I am not a scrooge, but would like to be more honest with all of this or more clear on who or what we are teaching her. My husband and I are really going to think more about how we go about all of this. I think the holiday will be handled in our house a little less traditional than most. Yes I can see that if the children want themselves to believe in something themselves than that is okay but to build up such a lie is really bothersome to me.
    My daughter whom we named Joy is a very loving and sincere child that loves to be polite, friendly, kind and so on to all who meet her. She was even honored at her school this year for her kindness to others, and I am always asked how I was blessed with such a wonderful child. She always makes gifts, presents, cards and is always giving away things she does not need any more to whomever she feels could use it. She is very bright and intelligent individual so it's hard for me to think that she needs to think of this elf as a determining factor as to her good or badness. Maybe it’s from my own past let down of religion and the whole heaven and hell thing that was cramped down my throat. It was as if we could never obtain the goal so why do I want to teach the same concept just in another form to my young child?
    As you can all see I am having a hard time with all this after watching it this year. I would love to hear feedback!              

    # December 26 2010, 21:02

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