A few weeks ago, the postman came with a Smyths Toys Store Christmas catalogue and handed it to me in front of my three-year-old. The two of us spent a happy hour looking through the pages and I listened as my son told me which ones he didn’t need (because he already has them), which ones he didn’t want (just because) and which ones he really wanted on his list.
One of his choices was a toy that cost over £200. There is no way we’re buying him that so I said, “We won’t be getting that for Christmas, darling. Look at the price. It’s very expensive for what it is. We’ll need a lot of money.”
He put his finger on his chin. “You’re right, mam. It is. Maybe Santa will give it to me.”
That gave me pause. Not because I was thinking, “Heck! We’d still be buying that if Santa were to be so generous.”
No, his sentence made me really think because we haven’t really done a proper Santa. Yes, he got presents that said Santa on them but since he was too young to even wonder about who gave him the present (he’s only just turned three after all), it really made me wonder where he got the idea of a living, breathing Santa from.
So, I mentioned it to Kevin and we’re now a bit stumped. Do we do Santa or not?
For those who aren’t parents, you probably won’t understand just how big of a deal this is. But it is a very big deal. Should you tell your child there is no Santa?
Google it and you’ll see a variety of questions all centred on Santa: how to explain Santa without lying, what to say about Santa, what to say when your child asks about Santa, etc.
So, for our sake, as well as other parents reading this, we decided to ask other parents what they do at home. That way, we can create our own Christmas tradition that doesn’t go against our family values.
Why Santa is a bad idea
Oh, I can almost hear the roar of protest from parents everywhere.
Before you get really riled up, let me just preface this section by saying that Santa doesn’t have to be a bad idea. Although, for the most part, he is.
If you’re confused, let me explain.
The most common way that people celebrate Santa is by talking about a jolly old gentleman with a long white beard and wearing a red suit. He lives in the North Pole with the Mrs., his elves and a few reindeers to pull his magical sleigh.
Every year, he comes and visits children to give them presents – sneaking in their houses or down their chimneys (if they have them) to do so and expects cookies, milk and carrots to be left for him and his reindeer.
To make matters worse, he somehow manages to keep tabs on the actions of every single child and decides whether he’s been good or bad all year. Said child gets nice presents if he’s been good or a lump of coal if he’s been bad.
That’s the gist of it, isn’t it?
Yep and that’s precisely why Santa is a bad idea.
The lies, the stalking and the manipulation all combine for a very, very bad and terrifying Santa.
Santa without lying
The idea of Santa as this jolly old man living with his wife, his elves and his reindeers – trying to make Christmas extra special for children everywhere is problematic for most parents because most parents know that children (especially young children) copy the behaviour that is modelled to them.
You can pretty much see how they’re raised by the way they act.
If they’re yelled at, children yell. When they witness or are the victims of violence, they’re usually more aggressive. And so on.
So, when you tell children about this kind of Santa and perpetuate the lie by letting them write to someone in the North Pole (and then pretend to write back) or all the other things, it gets very confusing for them.
Why are mom and dad allowed to tell lies and I’m not?
Santa, The Stalker
Another problem is that this kind of Santa is no more than a stalker. He watches a child’s every move as some sort of permanent audit and decides whether the child deserves a reward or punishment.
Can you imagine how freaky that is? How utterly scary for a young child?
We’re basically telling our children that they’re under a microscope 24/7 and, more importantly, that it’s okay.
How would you feel if you get told that, from now on, every action of yours is monitored by some unknown, magical entity that has the power to say whether you were good or bad? And that everyone else will know what the verdict has been because you’ll get a nice present if you were good and just a lump of coal if you were bad?
That’s not acceptable.
So unacceptable that there are laws against stalking of all kinds (yes, cyberstalking is a thing now).
Why then are we muddying the waters by telling our child that stalking is bad unless it’s Santa doing it?
Santa, The Master Manipulator
As if all the stalking isn’t bad enough, we also use Santa as a means to control our child’s behaviour via the reward and punishment thing.
In the run-up to Christmas, Santa becomes an effective way to curb unwanted behaviour from children.
What’s wrong with that, you say?
Well, if you’ve ever read evidence-based parenting books or the current research on child psychology, you’ll know that using rewards and punishments as tools to control behaviour is a big no-no.
Scientific research has shown that children who experience the external pressure exerted by rewards and punishments tend to experience diminished motivation to do it again.
In other words, when children are nice because they want to, not because of threats or bribes, the positive experience makes them want to keep doing it. But, when kids do something because they want to get a reward or avoid punishment, they experience less pleasure and are, therefore, less motivated to do that behaviour again!
That means that you’ll have to keep rewarding (or punishing) just to get the desired behaviour consistently.
This is why using Santa as a master manipulator only lasts during the holiday season. Have you tried getting your child to behave in June by saying that she won’t get a present come Christmas? How did that work for you?
Should we believe in Santa?
So, should we believe in Santa still? Or should we just ditch him altogether?
Well, the truth is Santa doesn’t have to be a lie because the idea of Santa and his gift-giving is actually rooted in truth. If you don’t know where Santa Claus came from, you need to watch this video:
My personal opinion is that we should believe in Santa as he really was – and not this highly commercialised, manipulative stalker. If you go back to the origins of Santa, you’ll see how different he is from Santa today.
In other words, when your child asks about Santa, you tell her the truth. The best response to “Is Santa real?” is to talk about Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nick, the real deal
First of all, Saint Nick was real. He was a living, breathing human being who sparked a thousand-year legend because he decided to give a poor family in ancient Myra a present in secret so as to spare the father’s pride.
He travelled all over and gave gifts wherever he went – without asking for anything in return.
There are records documenting that he followed in his uncle’s footsteps and became the next Bishop of Myra and even participated in the First Council of Nicea.
So, why should we lie about Santa when he was the real deal, to begin with?
In other words, he wasn’t just a figment of someone’s imagination. He wasn’t a lie.
Saint Nick and generosity
Another thing to remember is that Saint Nick was generous. He would give from his inheritance without asking for anything in return.
He spent years giving gifts to people until he had no material possessions left.
And he was totally fine with it.
Saint Nick and unconditional love
Saint Nick never qualified his gifts. He gave willingly and generously but he never felt the need to audit his recipients.
Are they deserving of gifts?
Were they good this year?
Nope. That’s not how Saint Nick was.
He travelled the length and breadth of Asia Minor and gave freely and unconditionally.
What to say about Santa [or how to not do Santa the usual way]
So, if you want to do Santa without lying then there are several ways to do this.
You could just go ahead and tell your child that Santa doesn’t exist and yet still play the Santa game. If this is what you wish to do then you’re probably wondering how to break the news that Santa isn’t real. You can do as Happily Family did and just sit your child down. Depending on the child, this could work beautifully.
I love the point they made at the very end of their post: “Kids can handle the duality of knowing that Santa is/isn’t real all at the same time. They will still believe in magic! You won’t be taking anything away from them.”
Or you can choose to go down the Sunny Skyz route and induct your child into the Santa team: “You sure have grown an awful lot this year. Not only are you taller, but I can see that your heart has grown, too. [ Point out 2-3 examples of empathetic behavior, consideration of people’s feelings, good deeds etc, the kid has done in the past year]. In fact, your heart has grown so much that I think you are ready to become a Santa Claus.”
Or you can do what we do.
Erm, Jade, how do you handle gift-giving in our house?
First, Santa is St. Nick. Not this highly commercialised figure that is so common today. And we introduced St. Nick to our son by watching the below video with him. It’s only 4 minutes’ long but shows the history of St. Nicholas. It’s amazing how quickly children learn.
Second, in our house, Santa is not a stalker or a manipulator. He doesn’t have elves parked on shelves, telling on our son and auditing his behaviour. Santa gives gifts because he can and he does. It makes him happy.
Third, all presents from Santa are small – usually clothes or even shoes. All the fun and big gifts are from family and friends. We think it’s important, especially now that he goes to nursery, that he never ever subscribes to the idea that Santa gives gifts depending on how good a child has been. Whilst we don’t actively support it, that idea is everywhere and can be hard to escape.
No, what we want is for him to grow up knowing that he is loved without condition. We may not always agree with his actions (he’s 3 so tantrums are still common) and we will continue to set and enforce limits, when and as required, but that doesn’t change the fact that we love him. St. Nick, thankfully, was just like this too.
Fourth, now that he understands the concept of gift-giving, we’re beginning to involve him in choosing and preparing Christmas gifts for others. This is a lot easier when you’re making homemade gifts, which is what we’re doing this year. Christmas is all about generosity and love, not about being good so he can get extra-special presents.
Fifth, he only gets four presents to open: something he wants, something he needs, something to experience, something to read (yes, we adapted it). Something he needs is always Santa’s present – the rest are shared among family and friends.
Our son is only just three so I’m sure there will be more questions raised about Santa along the way. Will we let him write to Santa? Will we ever let him go on Google’s Santa tracker?
Probably not but it would really depend. We’re happy to play along with the Santa game for as long as he wants it.
What we’re certain of though is that when he turns 6 or 7, we will be formally inducting him so that he too can become Santa Claus.
I love being Santa Claus – giving gifts because I can and want to. And I’m sure that my son will too.
How other families do (or don’t do) Santa
If you’re interested in how other families do (or don’t do) Santa, here are a few answers we were given when we asked our Facebook group. Maybe some of these answers will inspire you to create your own Christmas tradition that fits your values as a family.
Three Kids, Three Cats and A Husband: We did Santa, partly because I was had always been disappointed that my family never did it when I was a kid.
We never did the “you better be good because he’s watching you” aspect of it though. I think that’s weird.
The kids would write letters to Santa and we would go to a local Breakfast with Santa where the kids made crafts, including reindeer food. We left out cookies and milk and Santa would leave a note thanking the kids. We would the fireplace grate and sprinkle a little soot.
One of the aspects I liked was that we gave gifts without getting credit for it. I don’t consider it lying any more than when my husband told the girls that the small stone structure around the corner from us was a fairy house. (Although I guess some people wouldn’t like that either.)
Life as Mrs. D: We tell our three year old that Santa brings the presents in her stocking, which are all just little things and that big presents are from us, as we don’t want her to tell friends that Santa brought her big presents in case their families can only afford small ones and think that Santa doesn’t love them as much.
Boo Roo And Tigger Too: We believe in Santa, however, we have expressed to the children that he brings one present (and not the most expensive or elaborate one). The rest of the gifts are from us, family and friends.
Lylia Rose: Yes we do Santa! I think my 7-year old secretly knows but she hasn’t said! I stick labels that say from Santa on all their presents. I think it’s a bit of fun and makes Christmas more magical for them!
Devon Mama: We do – I love the magic of it! We do a stocking of gifts from Santa and then a couple of main presents from us parents. I want them to appreciate that they get gifts because we work hard to afford that but also, they’re only little once!
This magical period of believing is over so quickly that I’m happy to revel in it whilst it lasts! (Says the woman whose mum still did Santa stockings up until a couple of years ago ????)
Raising Harry: We do but he only brings the presents in Harry’s stockings usually books and maybe a new plate set or cup. The rest of Harry’s presents are from us. I want him to know that mummy and daddy work hard to give him everything we can but I think Santa and a bit of magic are super important too.
Me, Him, The Dog And A Baby: Since Erin was born we’ve told her that Santa is someone from a story. We tell her the story of St. Nicholas and what he did and then explain that’s where the idea of Christmas came from. We’ve told her right from the start that we and family/ friends buy her presents too.
Doesn’t matter what we’ve said though because she still talks about Santa and asked us to make sure the fireplace is cleared out for him.
Blue Bear Wood: We did Santa… he brought ALL the presents (apart from gifts from relatives and friends). They didn’t get one from us as such as we used to go to a theatre show as our gift. We even had a Christmas house fairy that only appeared in December and she would get stronger and more magical the nearer to Christmas we got.
Our cats were the communicators with Santa as they always slept in front of the open fire where Santa came down and we would burn their Christmas list in the fire and run out to the garden to see the words drifting off to Santa in the smoke. And we managed to keep it going for each of them until they were 12.
Mine are very close in age my eldest is a year older than my twins. When they found out and were obviously sad we talked about how the Christmas magic was all about them and us. That we made it and will continue to make it together doing special things and spending time together
Free Time With The Kids: We do Santa but a couple of years ago, biggest child figured out the truth. Here’s how we turned “sorry the magic isn’t real” into “now you can be Santa too!” in terms of how we do Santa.
Everything under the tree is from someone – either us, siblings or relatives etc. – but the stocking is from Santa. I think kids should know the big presents are from us. I saw a post about what will children think if Santa buys their friend an Xbox but they “only” got pants and chocolate coins? Have they not been good enough?
The Family Ticket: We do Santa!! Or as we call him Father Christmas.
To be honest, I think my boys are too young to really grasp that a strange man comes into our house in the middle of the night and leaves all the presents.
We’ve opted for just 1 gift from him and the rest are from family and friends. I don’t want the children to take gifts for granted and I think it’s important to understand that people have saved and spent money on something no matter how big or small to make them happy.
I just hope no bearded men come and rob our house near Christmas. If they woke the kids up they’d probably give him an apple pie and help him pack!
Ankle Biters Adventures: We do and we say that Santa brings all of the presents except the ones from immediate family as they have them when they see them.
The Growing Mum: We don’t do Santa. We just can’t be bothered with the whole pretence thing. And also don’t like the idea of lying to them – especially on a long term basis.
We give them presents from us. Grandparents do give them presents from Santa – any excuse to buy for their grandkids eh? They see Santa as the bearded guy grandparents take them to see every Christmas and that suits us fine.
Santa Claus, believe it or not, is a controversial figure – especially for parents wondering how to explain Santa without lying and then reconcile the commercialised, manipulative and criminal caricature he’s become with evidence-based parenting.
Should you tell your child there is no Santa?
To me, personally, that would be the lie because Saint Nicholas clearly lived. There are documents to prove it. In other words, there was a Santa – a man whose generosity inspired and keeps inspiring millions of people for over a thousand years.
That said, it’s important to emphasise the difference between the Santa of today and Saint Nicholas. Equally important is to step away from using Santa as a tool to control a child’s behaviour or to agree that someone stalking someone is totally okay (It’s not. Stalking is a crime, people!).
If you’re a parent agonising over your decision, then you know that you’re not alone and that there are different ways to deal with it (see sections above).
Just remember that you know your child best and that different explanations will be received differently.
Another thing to remember: Explaining Santa to toddlers can be a bit difficult because very young children still have a hard time separating fantasy from reality.
For example, this morning my son mentioned again that Santa would be bringing him a present on Christmas. As I wrote previously, we’ve never had the chance to really talk about Santa so I asked him, “Darling, who told you that Santa will be bringing presents?”
“Santa told you that he’ll give you a present?”
“Yes, he did. He told me yesterday.” He looked at me in the eye and said it with the certainty that only children his age have.
See what I mean?
That said, I believe in Santa and love the idea of giving a present without expecting anything in return. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?