NSFK: Santa Psychology and Nonbelievers

But who and what is Santa? Does reality have anything to do with it? When is it time for parents to ‘fess up about Santa? And, why does this story persist? In a 1000 years time will the story of Father Christmas be the foundations of a new religion or will it be like a Robin Hood or King Arthur myth, steeped in mystery but obviously untrue?

‘Fess up time depends upon the age of the child, says developmental psychologist Cyndy Scheibe. “In our research, we found that for Santa Claus, if someone tells them the truth, children don’t change their belief overnight. Instead it is a much longer transition, because there’s a lot of evidence on both sides. From a child’s perspective, there is a lot of evidence that he’s real, not least of which is that he brings you presents, you can see him on the street, and in most movies the answer is that Santa is real.”

[This is what the press release says. I remember distinctly it being a Santa to No-Santa bistable flip when I was a child as I caught my parents wrapping presents on Xmas Eve. Ed.]

“The transition to disbeliever usually begins around age six or seven, taking about two to three years. From a developmental psychology standpoint that makes a lot of sense. That’s when children are moving from preoperational to concrete operational thinking, and that means in concrete operational thinking they’re looking for solid evidence, and magic is no longer a reason to believe how something works. A child in the concrete operational stage will begin to ask questions like, ‘How does Santa fit down the chimney? How does he get to all those houses in one night?'”

Scheibe advised that when children ask about Santa for the first time, no matter what their age, the important thing for a parent is to ask back, What do you think? Why do you ask that? “When children first ask, they aren’t really looking for the right answer. They’re just trying to make sense of the fact that there’s a lot of ambiguous information out there.”

The advice I usually give is to always treat the Santa Claus story as part of a larger conversation about the magic and wonder of Christmas, and how it is about people giving things to each other as well as getting things

[I thought it was meant to be about celebrating the birth of a religious icon, not getting presents!!! Ed.]

and it is about making it a special time when special things happen. Then, explain to a child that there have been people – like St. Nicholas – who did caring and loving things, giving gifts to people who were lonely or needed them. Parents and other grown-ups continue this by playing Santa Claus for their own children and for each other – which makes the whole season and holiday more magical and wonderful, especially for little children. And now that they know the real secret of Santa Claus, they can join in with all of the other grown-ups in the world and continue this tradition to make it wonderful and magical for others.”

“So to answer the old question whether children get anything out of believing in Santa – all you have to do is look to the ‘Baltimore Sun’ editorial ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’ or ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and a host of other wonderful stories. In truth, we ALL get something out of believing in Santa Claus.”

[Can the same be said of god, I wonder? Ed.]