Is it time to put an end to Santa’s “naughty list”?
Many of us have magical memories of Santa sneaking into our childhood homes and bringing gifts and joy – but is there a darker side to the beloved Christmas tradition?
“You better watch out, don’t cry, don’t pout, I’ll tell you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.”
And don’t tell me! My three-year-old daughter has fully immersed herself in Santa mythology for the first time this year. I can see a glint of pure wonder in her eyes as she tells me how Old Saint Nick will fit down our chimney, and it immediately transports me back to my own childhood Christmases.
I was a full-fledged believer, and I’m proud to admit it. My parents went above and beyond to encourage my love of the magic of Christmas, particularly Santa Claus. On Christmas morning, I would tiptoe downstairs to find the fireguard ajar, the remains of a hastily consumed mince pie on a plate, and a reindeer-shaped ornament. chewed carrot and a tissue with a red smudge where Santa clearly polished Rudolph’s nose (certainly not my mother’s lipstick). As far as I was concerned, the evidence was insurmountable.
However, as I start to create my own Santa Claus myth for my daughter, I can’t help but feel guilty. Could her belief in all of this holiday magic be undermining her trust? In moments of frustration, I can hear myself threatening her with the “naughty list,” and I see a flash of fear across her face. It’s made me wonder what kind of Santa I want to be for my daughter, and whether I should do it at all.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that the modern world appears to have lost much of its magic, belief in Santa Claus has remained remarkably consistent. A 1978 study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry discovered that 85% of four-year-olds believed in Santa Claus. More than a quarter-century later, in 2011, research published in the Journal of Cognition and Development found that 83% of 5-year-olds claimed to be true believers, a figure that was very similar to the 83% of 5-year-olds in 1991. Despite the fact that Google Trends shows that the search term “is Santa real?” spikes every December.
It’s not entirely surprising, I suppose. The cultural evidence we create as a society for Santa’s existence certainly adds up. He’s in every Christmas TV show and movie, and he’s camped out in odd little sheds in every shopping mall we visit. On Christmas Eve, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) allows you to track Santa’s journey. To reassure children during the 2020 pandemic, the World Health Organization issued a joking statement declaring Santa “immune” from Covid 19. To be honest, there’s more evidence for Santa’s existence out there than there is for mine, which is nearly enough to cause a mild existential crisis.
And it is precisely this effort on the part of parents and society in general to create such seemingly overwhelming evidence for Santa Claus’ existence that David Kyle Johnson, a philosophy professor at King’s College in Pennsylvania, refers to as “The Santa Lie” in his book The Myths That Stole Christmas.
“When I say ‘The Santa Lie,’ I don’t mean the entire mythos of Santa Claus; I mean a specific practise within that myth: parents tricking their children into believing that Santa Claus is literally real,” Johnson explains. He emphasises how we don’t just ask children to imagine Santa, but to believe in him. Johnson sees this emphasis on belief over imagination as harmful. “I definitely believe it can erode trust between a parent and a child, but I believe the biggest danger is the anti-critical thinking lessons they are teaching,” Johnson says. “Parents who are particularly committed to ‘The Santa Lie’ will commit insane acts to keep their children believing.”
This reminds me of when I was eight years old and wrote a letter to Santa, inquiring about the logistics of his yearly mission, only for my father to write back in his best “olden times” handwriting, covering the reply in sooty fingerprints (probably whilst gnawing on a raw carrot). My colleague Rob mentioned that his mother found the carrot to be a particularly revolting part of the Christmas Eve ritual.
According to Johnson, the creation of false evidence and convincing children that bad evidence is actually good evidence undermines the kind of critical thinking we should be encouraging in children in this age of fake news, conspiracy theories, and science denial. “The ‘Santa lie’ is part of a parenting practise that encourages people to believe whatever they want to believe simply for the psychological reward,” Johnson explains. “That’s really bad for society as a whole.”
When magic is no longer the answer, children start to gather evidence – Cyndy Scheibe
Interestingly, some experts argue that believing in Santa Claus can actually promote critical thinking in children. It all depends on how parents support their children as they discover and accept the truth. Cyndy Scheibe, a psychology professor at Ithaca College in New York and a media literacy expert, has been studying children’s belief in Santa Claus since the 1980s. She studied three different time periods and discovered surprisingly consistent results each time.
“Kids start asking questions around the age of four or five, and then they really start to have doubts around the age of six,” Scheibe says. Schiebe discovered the same thing every time she conducted her research. that the average age at which children stop believing in Santa Claus was between seven and eight years old. However, it is almost never unexpected. “I discovered that for children, that process seemed to take about two years.”
Scheibe explains that this transition period, of between seven and nine years old, makes sense because it aligns with the ages when children go from being so-called “pre-operational thinkers” to “concrete operational thinkers”. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, coined these terms to describe how children gradually develop their understanding and knowledge of the world. At the pre-operational stage, a child’s perception of the world is shaped more by how things appear than by deeper logical reasoning. However, this changes as children begin to probe and question what they see or hear. “A concrete operational thinker seeks evidence,” says Scheibe. “They begin to mature cognitively, where the story no longer makes logical sense and magic is no longer the solution. Then they begin gathering evidence.”
And it is at this point, according to Scheibe, that parents must follow their children’s lead in order to help them develop critical thinking skills. “They act as little scientists, testing hypotheses and gathering data to determine what’s true and what’s not,” Schiebe explains. This is something that parents can encourage by asking probing questions. “It’s all about asking questions in media literacy. What are your thoughts? How could we possibly know? “What makes you think people do that?” Scheibe elaborates.