Spoiling Santa

By Kristi Mexia

September 25, 2013 5 min read

'Twas the dilemma before Christmas, when all through the house many adults were stirring, even an adult mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that children's innocent imaginations could be spared.

Despite the many poems and stories professing the truth about Santa Claus, many parents, like those in the verse above, struggle with spoiling Santa for their children. Parents and guardians often can be seen sustaining nearly acrobatic efforts during the holiday season to keep the Santa illusion going -- conjuring up letters written by the jolly old guy and taking bites out of carrots left for reindeer. But when, if ever, should a parent confess that the man with a stomach that shakes like a bowlful of jelly isn't (gasp!) real?

The imaginary-friend-deception tactic by parents isn't new. Children's lives are populated with tooth-stealing fairies, bunnies that hide eggs and, of course, Santa Claus. Yet the man with a thing for flying reindeer seems to get the worst rap when it comes to bursting childhood bubbles.

Many parents don't see the harm in never telling their child that the man in the North Pole doesn't exist. One California mom says she didn't see the point in ruining the fun for her children. "I just told them if you don't believe, he wouldn't come. Eventually, they all figured it out, but the no-Santa discussion never really came up." However, some kids can take the discovery that their parents are the ones with the appetite for all those chocolate chip cookies and milk, rather than Santa, pretty tough.

"I'm not real big on the whole Santa thing," Brad Pitt confessed to E! News. "I thought it was a huge act of betrayal when I was a kid. I didn't like that. When I found out the truth, I was like, 'Why, why, why would you lie to me? Why?'"

Pitt's utter devastation about Kriss Kringle ultimately changed his own parenting tactics. Pitt decided he wasn't going to use his acting skills to creep around the house in a Santa suit. So he tells his kids that some people believe that the presents under the Christmas tree are from Santa and "some people believe it's parents, and you get to believe whatever you want."

To avoid a Brad Pitt-like devastation of Christmas for your child, Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist, asks parents to consider a few things before responding to the dreaded question of: Is Santa real?

In deciding on how to make the transition from believer to nonbeliever, Hartwell-Walker, in an article from Psych Central, suggests that when your child asks about the validity of Santa, consider whether he really wants the truth or whether he simply wants reassurance that it is OK to believe for a bit longer. In order to determine this, Hartwell-Walker suggests that you consider the age of your child. "A 10-year-old who still believes ... will be at a clear disadvantage on the playground," she says, but a 4-year-old nonbeliever "may well become the focus of sandbox hostility." Overall, Hartwell-Walker counsels parents to tailor their response to each child and to help children remain "active magic-makers." Parents can keep the magic of Santa alive for even older children by slipping secret gifts into stockings or under the tree that are "from Santa." Denying the gift was from you but smiling or winking when questioned, says Hartwell-Walker, keeps the spirit of Santa alive.

This decidedly diplomatic Santa tactic seems to be the parent strategy of choice. Most parents don't want to be the bearer of bad news or be banished during the season of holiday cheer for ruining a childhood fantasy, so they take the "Yes, Virginia" route, allowing their children to believe in the magic of Christmas, but maybe not the gift-giving legend himself. Like the famous opinions expressed by an editor of The New York Sun in 1897, many believe that Santa serves as a beacon of giving in a season that is too often geared toward receiving. "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. ... Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus."

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