New parenthood is fraught with difficult decisions.
That’s certainly old news. It seems as soon as the pregnancy test reads positive, we’re ushered into a life-long game of either/or: will we breastfeed or bottle-feed? Will we co-sleep or crib sleep? Stay at home or choose a daycare?
Considering all the choices we make to safeguard the health, happiness, and general well-being of our children, deciding whether or not to introduce the idea of Santa Claus hardly seems like it qualifies. But as Rebecca Turner, a licensed marriage and family therapist tells me, Santa Claus can be a complex topic deserving of thoughtful consideration.
For many families who celebrate Christmas, Santa Claus lends a bit of whimsical magic that seems central to childhood tradition. Embracing this belief can be an exercise in imaginative play and inspires children to feel the wonder and awe of the holiday season.
But some people have reservations, including Turner. “Trust between parent and child is the foundation for healthy development and relationship building,” she explains. “Hearing from parents that something is real, and then a few years later, hearing it is not, can be very confusing for children, rocking a sense of trust they may have developed in parents, or confirming any mistrust.”
The Santa Strategy
When it comes time for families who celebrate Christmas to make the call about Santa, Turner hopes they will emphasize what he symbolizes. “Families can support a sense of openness and trust between parents and children and still hold the idea of Santa Claus,” she says. “Santa Claus is a symbol of the love, giving, joy, and magic of Christmas.”
Additionally, Turner encourages parents to open the communication lines about Santa early on, giving kids a choice in the matter. Ready for the Santa talk? She advises saying something like this: “Some families say Santa Claus brings presents for everyone, but other families share that they are the ones who are giving each other gifts. Both are ways of showing love and make us feel excited and joyful during Christmastime. What do you think about Santa Claus?”
Child therapist Sofia Mendoza agrees but also understands that some parents just want to embrace the magic of the season. With thoughtful planning, she says Santa can certainly have a place in family traditions. “The quality of parent-child relationships isn’t dependent on being conflict-free. It’s about how we recover and repair after conflict,” she explains. Her advice? Be open if your little one starts poking holes in the Santa story—and allow them to decide whether or not to continue the tradition. “This is how we can give our kids a little power in a world where everyone is making decisions for them,” she says.
When it comes to Santa Claus, there’s no right or wrong way to proceed. Wondering what to do for your holiday traditions? Take a tip from moms like you across the country:
How Moms Deal With Santa
“We are all about Christmas magic! My 3-year-old believes whole-heartedly in Santa Claus. We leave out cookies, look for reindeer tracks, and write letters to St. Nick. I don’t feel like I’m lying to her but instead that I’m giving her a gift. Childhood is so short and fleeting! I want my daughter to go all-in and embrace the magic while we can. She’ll have her whole life for practicality.” —Anny D., mom of one
“I keep it up as long as my husband wants me to because he’s Christian, but I’m Jewish. Every time I participate in the lie, it breaks my heart.” —Lea, mom of two
“We do Santa at home, and I’ve been known to threaten to text Santa. It’s part of the holiday fun though we are not Christians and celebrate Xmas in a secular way. I do give the awesome gifts from us and the OK gifts from Santa because there’s no way I’m giving him the credit!” —Amina S., mom of one
“We talked about Santa when we had our first. We decided we didn’t want to have to justify lying and secrets. Kids ask a lot of insightful questions as they grow. They are trying to figure out the world around them. We wanted them to have accurate information and be able to trust us. We wanted them to think critically and be pragmatic. And with Santa specifically, we didn’t want them to feel like some force was judging them and deciding how good or bad they were all year in a bid for material gifts.” —Clare, mom of two
“I grew up non-religious but celebrated Christmas and Easter and believed in Santa. My husband and I are raising our kids mostly Jewish, but we celebrate Christmas and Easter with my family (we don’t get our own tree). I never told my son about Santa, he just picked up on it by himself and decided he believed, so we went with it. I’m just going to continue to let him take the reins on this one since he seems to enjoy it.” —Katherine, mom of two
“I tell my 3-year-old that anyone can be Santa if they have the outfit. So, he’s come to see it more as play-acting rather than believing in an actual sole figure.” —Cindy L., mom of one
“My first kid was 100 percent literal and flat out asked at age 2 or 3 whether Santa was real, and I told him the truth. I thought that meant we weren’t doing Santa, until the next year, when he actually told me that he wanted to believe in Santa. And then he did until this past year at age 9. It was an interesting illustration of how fact and fiction are much more malleable for kids, and how they can comfortably hold both things in their heads at once. When he finally wanted to know for sure, I told him that St. Nick (what we call him in our house) had once been a real person and that after he had died people had carried on giving things to others because they recognized that it was good and that St. Nick lives on through us when we do it in his memory. So, now my oldest gets to take his turn being ‘Santa’ for his younger sibling, and anyone else he finds who is needy.” —Nikki R., mom of one
“We’re bigger on Santa than others. I say Santa brought the gifts. We leave out cookies. We get photos on Santa’s knee. When asked, I say I don’t know if there’s a Santa, which yeah, I guess is still a lie. But maybe there’s a Santa somewhere. I mean, who am I to say there isn’t one at all. But it falls in line with ghosts, fairies, and aliens. They spark very similar conversations. [I’ll say] ‘Hmm, I don’t know, but it’s fun to imagine there might be! What do you think?’ —Liz M., mom of four
This article was originally published on December 3, 2019 and has been updated for timelines.