Written by Caroline Meyer
Kids are amazing little beings and as they grow they start to question what they have been told more and more. They start asking some of the more difficult questions regarding the birds and the bees, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy and of course, Santa. The time will come when they start to question if Santa is truly a real being that comes around every Christmas or if he is something that parents made up. How you handle the situation will often depend on the child’s age and level of understanding.
While the question can come at any age, usually even earlier if there are older siblings, how you handle it depends on the perceived level of maturity. When they are younger, they often want Santa to be real and just want reassurance that they will still be getting a visit that year. At this point, you might want to reinforce the idea of Santa by watching a movie with them or taking them to meet “Santa” at the local shopping centre. By the time they are 8 or 9, they may realize that Santa is not real, but still want to pretend. If you feel your child can handle the truth at this point, you should explain to them the idea behind Santa and where it originates. Start by asking them why they want to know so you can judge how best to answer. If they are not yet ready for the truth, you can continue the Santa story for another year.
By the age of 10 or so they are unlikely to believe in Santa anymore. Before the age of 7, Santa is a fun story to tell and helps enhance their imaginations so you can embellish the story however you see fit at this point so that they keep believing. If your 11 year old still wants to hold on to the story of Santa, there is no harm in it, they will eventually let it go as they generally already know the truth of it at this age.
In most cases, by the time they ask you the question: “Is Santa real?” they already know the truth. They are usually waiting for you to confirm it. Santa is a Christmas story and even if you have not told your children the story of Saint Nick or actively cultivated the Santa myth, they will be exposed to it on the TV, in stores, on the internet and so forth. Their peers will also help them believe (or not) in a man that knows if you have been bad or good and who rewards for good behaviour and leaves you coal if you have not behaved.
There is no “best” time to tell a child that Santa Claus is not real. It is really up to you to decide, based on when your child starts doubting his existence. If there are younger siblings in the home, you might even want to prolong the fantasy so that the enjoyment is not spoiled for the younger kids too early. Wait until your child brings up the topic and starts asking pointed questions as to how Santa gets down chimneys, flies around the whole world in one night or gets into your home when you don’t have a fireplace. They may just ask you outright if you buy them gifts and put it under the tree and say it was Santa. If they are ready for the truth, they will accept the fact that Santa does not exist. For younger children, who are not yet ready to have Santa debunked, they probably won’t accept the premise that Santa is made-up.
Once they know the truth and accept it, you can explain the ideas behind the story of Santa Claus. You can explain that Christmas is a time of giving and keeping up the tradition established by Saint Nicholas helps keep the spirit of Christmas alive. They can then help with the preparations and keep the secret so that it isn’t spoiled for younger siblings. Once they know and accept that Santa isn’t real you can look at getting them to help set out the gifts, stuff stockings and even give away some toys to underprivileged kids themselves to experience the true spirit of Christmas.
If they have it all figured out and you feel they are not wanting you to carry on the fantasy for them, don’t lie. It is best to be truthful at this point, explain the tradition and even tell them a bit more about your beliefs and traditions in your own family over the festive season. Christmas is about being generous and giving to others, whether it is toys or our time, or both. Santa Claus helps carry the story of selflessness and bringing joy to others. Explain to the child that we can choose to believe in anything that we want. This may also help on the perspective of believing in something more enduring and greater than the Santa Claus anomaly.