The Santa Lie! Shhh, don't tell the children!

Christopher Barnes and Kay Owen investigate the mythology of Christmas and if children really do believe in Santa Claus ⎮ 4 min read
Published in Neuroscience
The Santa Lie! Shhh, don't tell the children!

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As we approach the festive season, the thoughts of adults and children alike turn to Christmas trees, twinkling lights, sparkling decorations and of course, Santa Claus. The mythology surrounding Santa has become deeply embedded in our cultural fabric and continues to find new means of expression. Modern children can now track his progress electronically on Christmas Eve and receive letters confirming his visit in addition to their annual meetings with the man in red. Belief facilitates the creation of childish wonder, enchantment and fantasy (Clark, 1998). Therefore, for many of us who live or work with young children, the heady mix of fantasy, suspense, intrigue and pleasure that Santa brings, is one of the preeminent joys of the season. Everything about the existence of Santa Claus is embellished with so much seemingly real, tangible and irrefutable evidence (propagated by parents worldwide, and extoled by companies and marketing organisations), that children cannot help but believe. With both adults and children buying so wholeheartedly into the fiction, it is unsurprising that awareness of Santa Claus and recognition of his image is now near universal.

Indeed, parental testimony would seem to be a particularly potent factor, as parental engagement in cultural rituals and the evidence they provide for Santa’s existence enables children to override their natural and instinctual questioning regarding the plausibility of such things (Woolley and Ghossainy, 2013, p.8). Cultural rituals provide a special form of testimony that impacts children’s reality/fantasy distinctions and determines whether they endorse the reality status of a figure or not (Kapitány, Nelson, Burdett, and Goldstein, 2020). So, the melding of social traditions and family rituals are important because they create meaning, a sense of belonging and are related to parental competence and child adjustment (Fiese, Tomcho, Douglas, Josephs, Poltrock, and Baker, 2002). Furthermore, Fiese et al. (2002) suggest that rituals provide transgenerational continuity in meaning which leads to great anticipation of its reoccurrence and incorporates a strong affective component that strengthens family ties and emotional togetherness. 

However, some have questioned the efficacy and morality of promoting belief in Santa amongst children, suggesting that it encourages a worldview that is explicitly false (Tomsons, 2020) and that there may be negative consequences when children discover the truth about Santa. These negative consequences are said to include damage to perceived parental trustworthiness causing children to feel betrayed, thus increasing credulity, ill-motivated behaviour and damaging the parent-child relationship (Johnson, 2010). Therefore, the problem for thinkers and researchers such as Johnson (2010) is the consequence of allowing our children to literally believe in such things.

But do children really believe Santa is literally real?  In short, the answer may well be yes! As Woolley, and Ghossainy (2013) report there is a broad range of research that suggests young children have high levels of belief in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and other fictional beings (Sharon & Woolley 2004; Shtulman & Yoo 2015). But is that really surprising? Compared to other fictional characters, many aspects of Santa are probable. Santa looks human, he travels in a sleigh, the sleigh is pulled by reindeer, and someone who looks like him is available to meet in person at least once each year. But he is also capable of many improbable things – his sleigh and reindeer fly through the air as he travels around the world in a single night delivering presents to millions of children. So, what reasoning do children employ when making decisions about situations, such as this, where there is conflicting information? 

Illustration by Beth Robertson

Many psychological studies have found that children are able to understand “impossible” events (Goldstein and Alperson, 2019) and have the ability to recognise anything that would not typically be able to happen due to violations and the breaking of scientific laws (Shtulman & Yoo, 2015). Children (and adults alike) also have a fundamental drive toward finding natural explanations for events in their world; whether this happens in their daily lives, in the media, or in testimony from others (Woolley & Cornelius, 2017). Furthermore, work by Thorburn, Bowman-Smith, and Friedman (2020), reports that children may choose realistic and mundane story events because they are reality-prone when thinking about stories (Weisberg et al., 2013).   

Typicality and regularity are important in children’s thinking too and even pre-schoolers are able to distinguish that some story characters are not real or that some fantastical events may not be possible. So, the waters remain muddied when trying to explain how children are able to hold a belief in Santa as real against the backdrop of children’s preference for natural explanations of events and ability to distinguish real from unreal phenomenon. We know that as causal reasoning ability, knowledge and understanding increase with age, there is also a decline in children’s belief in Santa, and other fictional beings (Blair et al., 1980). Therefore, perhaps it is more about children’s willingness to accept testimony and it is rather this naïve acceptance that changes as they age in line with these other cognitive developments.

Is belief in Santa all that bad?  It is clear that lying, and specifically the Santa lie, is morally wrong; that there is at least some potential for children to lose their trust in their parent and that abilities (as some have argued) such as critical thinking may be negatively impacted (Johnson, 2010). But for us the problem is not so much whether children believe Santa Claus’s is real or not, or their willingness to accept testimony, but instead the extent to which this may be damaging either to the child’s development or their relationship with caregivers. 

There is in fact more evidence in support of the positive impact of this belief on children but also upon their family, and perhaps naturally the societal beliefs we hold, or communities in which we live.  Indeed, belief is said to facilitate abstraction, imagination and mental and emotional imagery in children (Breen, 2018) and may foster a range of prosocial behaviours such as gratitude - which promotes physical, psychological and social benefits (Emmons, 2013), adaptation – when dealing with disappointment (Lazarus & Lazarus, 1991), and resilience – allowing them to cope with future life adversities or difficult experiences (Oliver, Collin, Burns, & Nicholas, 2006). Breen (2018) also adds that encouraging children to believe in a benevolent Santa may foster the attributes of kindness, co-operation, sharing and the consideration of others.  Not to mention the adult enjoyment gained from seeing the incredible pleasure and wonderment experienced by children.

So, whilst some call for beings such as Santa to fade into the past (Johnson, 2010), there is in our opinion more to be gained from retaining our traditions and cultural rituals about him. Though we are almost certain, at least for most of us, this was never in question!

Written by Christopher Barnes and Kay Owen 🎄🎅🏽🤶🏻🦌

Poster image illustrated by Beth Robertson


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