Sitting around in my apartment decorated in the holiday spirit, a few friends and I were discussing our own memories of learning that Santa wasn’t real (apologies to any children reading this, but if you are reading this, I’m really impressed with your advanced reading skills). When one friend groaned and proclaimed that she didn't want to be reminded of the day her heart was first broken, I realized how dramatic the effects of learning that Santa isn't real can be.
Every child goes through the make-believe stage as an important part of development. When I started teaching, I was warned to be careful when playing scientific “tricks” on students, i.e. pretending raisins were sewer lice when discussing the properties of life, because I was told that lying to children could cause serious trust issues if I took the charade too far. For many of my friends, the awakening into the Santa-free reality was a struggle — many describe not letting go of their beliefs, and feeling distrustful of those proclaiming truth. My question that arises from all of this is, how far is too far in developing a child’s creativity and belief system without scarring them?
After surveying a larger group of millenials, I noticed a few interesting trends. Not surprisingly, those children who felt most scarred were the ones who remained believers until much later in life — around 10 or 12 years old. Many were angry when classmates broke the news rather than close friends, and many secretly protested the truth for a few years longer. For one child, the realization took two years after figuring out the striking resemblance between Santa’s handwriting and his mother’s was not a coincidence, but he was too sad to stop believing and upheld the make-believe for a bit longer. And some had funny stories to share — like one friend who at 8 years old found all the presents wrapped and hidden for her and her siblings the day before Christmas. After unwrapping them all, she then re-wrapped and re-labeled the ones she wanted. Take that, Santa.
Yet even those who would describe a dramatic story still felt that it was important to believe, for it was one of the most magical periods of their lives. When asked to reflect upon if believing in Santa was a good thing, many responded with similar answers: the best part of Santa was emphasizing the season of giving and love, with an added bonus of helping teach children to want to be “good.”
One of my friends made a comment that he didn’t really remember believing in Santa because in his house they were raised being taught to give gifts to one another in the holiday spirit of giving. Believing in Santa or not, the true joy of giving to others should be the theme taking center-stage. Holidays are a fun time and even for those long past childish beliefs, the traditions are a reminder of many things we are grateful for, especially family and love. Perhaps parents should be wary as the child gets older to break the news gently, as working too hard to uphold a lie could be more harmful. But the overall lessons learned reflect a net positive — the “spirit of Santa” is really not made-up even if the man in the suit is.