Grandparents Grapple With Question: Is Santa Claus Real?

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We have two grandchildren, five-year-old Danny, and three-year-old Jessie. We live near them and spend a lot of time with them. As we head into the holidays, here’s our problem. Our daughter-in-law Bethany “does Santa” in a big way, e.g., leaving cookies and milk out for him, planting reindeer hooves marks in the yard, having the kids write him letters telling him how they’ve behaved.

This year we’re anticipating that Danny, who is a questioning and thoughtful little boy, will be asking if Santa is real. His mother will say yes, Santa is real, and we know she expects us to say yes, too, when we’re asked. 

My husband and I think this idea of saying Santa is real is nonsensical and deceptive. We don’t want to lie to Danny, but neither do we want to get ourselves into hot water with Bethany by not going along with the Santa lie. Our son tends to just go along with Bethany on these types of matters. Do you have any advice for us?

When young parents position Santa to their children, it comes down to picking one of three basic approaches: (1) They present Santa as real; (2) They present Santa as not real; (3) They present Santa in a specific context. Each approach represents a combination of a parent’s personal experiences with Santa as a child and the values the parent is trying to teach the child. Let me provide some detail on each.

“Santa is real.” Parents who present Santa as being real typically relate experiences from their own childhoods about the fun and magic of believing in Santa; the excitement of sitting on Santa’s lap and talking with him; the anticipation of his arrival; the wonderment of his sleigh, elves and reindeer. These parents do not view themselves as promoting a deception, but rather, they feel they are helping their child participate in an age-old cultural custom that is fun and enchanting.

In addition, they tend to believe it is not a traumatizing big deal when a child learns that Santa is a myth. As one parent starkly wrote: “Life is not a beautiful dream, but a chaotic mess. So let the kiddies have a few years of delusion before everything hits the fan for them. It can’t hurt to ease them into reality.” In short, these parents feel that telling a young child that Santa is real is harmless and innocuous.

“Santa is not real.” One parent feels very strongly: “If you tell your kids Santa’s real – you’re lying! Also, it’s creepy, the idea that you’d tell your kids that a mysterious bearded stranger in a red suit is always watching them and judging them and that if they are good they will get toys. That’s messed up.”

Another parent says, “I was raised being told the truth about Santa, as were plenty of other people. [When my mom was raised believing in Santa]… she says she remembers feeling she wasn’t good enough to get gifts from Santa. They were very poor growing up.”

Another parent said that he never quite trusted his parents again for telling him Santa was real, not to mention that he felt stupid for buying into it in the first place.

And finally, there are those children whose religion and/or ethnicity precludes them from embracing Santa, leaving them often feeling different or ostracized. For these parents it’s all very straightforward: when asked if Santa is real, the answer is no. There is no deception, fabricating, winking or crossing fingers involved.

“Putting Santa in a specific context.” Parents who adhere to this approach often present Santa as part of a traditional story based on a real man who has evolved through some wonderful imagination into Santa Claus, a fun holiday character with magical attributes. Children can still participate in the fun aspects of Santa and know it is part of their ongoing fantastical pretend play, yet not feel they have been deceived by their parents.

Taylor Newman, a blogger for Parenting Magazine writes: “I plan to expose Kaspar [her two-year-old son] to all kinds of traditions from a wide range of faiths, and maybe even make a winter solstice celebration the centerpiece of our family’s holiday festivities in the future. I might just tell Kaspar that Santa is a fun Christmas character, that some children believe he’s real, and that we can still hang our stockings while knowing Santa’s part of a story. Kids easily walk the line between what’s real and imaginary all the time. Perhaps allowing Kaspar the insight that what’s magic about Christmas is that all people, young and old, love to imagine, and will maintain the special parts of Christmas without requiring I uphold a farce… and without ‘leaving him out’, or prematurely jaded, as a result of my honesty.”

Another way to put Santa in context is to use a familiar and reliable standby, Sesame Street. This Web site contains over 60 different enactments and skits using real life people and many of the Sesame Street characters dressed up as Santa. Viewing some of these together can help a child appreciate the pretend aspects of Santa while preserving some of the fun and enjoyment of Santa as a character. These parents, when asked if Santa is real, might answer, “Santa Claus is a really fun holiday character, and here are some of the stories about him.” Some children will themselves attribute realness to Santa, while other kids will hone in on the pretend and creative aspects.

I suspect this third approach, putting Santa in a specific context, is one that will work best for you and your husband because it does not involve what you consider to be deception, yet it doesn’t leave you in the “bah, humbug” role, ruining the fun aspects of Santa for Danny and Jessie. In addition, it doesn’t put you at odds with Bethany, since it seems important to Bethany that Santa play an active role in her family’s holiday activities. I suggest you discuss how this can be done in such a way that you mutually honor each other’s position.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to Karen@mommybites.com

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One Response to Grandparents Grapple With Question: Is Santa Claus Real?

  1. Jezra Kaye says:

    I love your columns, and even though I’m Jewish, read this one with interest. Your idea of putting “hard truths” in a context that allows for both wonder and reality can apply to other parenting dilemmas, such as telling a child that he or she is adopted, or explaining racism, which we had to do early with our bi-racial daughter. Another home run, Dr. Gramma Karen!

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