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Santa Claus: Innocent Fantasy or Harmful Lie?

Playing ‘The Santa Game’ Without the Harm

So how exactly do you play ‘The Santa Game’?

By making sure that the make-believe world doesn’t cross over into our world — which is what leads us to lie.  

For example, because the tooth fairy is supposed to trade teeth for coins, we tell our children the coin was left by them, not us. Because we tell our child that Santa delivers presents, or that the Easter Bunny leaves them eggs, we have to pretend to do that, often by being deceitful.  

What we can do instead is tell the story of a kindly old man who leaves gifts for children in make-believe world, and we can give presents to each other ‘just like Santa does in the story.’  We can tell our child the fun story of the tooth fairy and swap teeth for coins, ‘just like the tooth fairy does in the story.’ The child would still know the joy of these fantasy tales, but there would be no deception.

Even with this approach there are kids who really want to believe Santa is real and that doesn’t have to be squashed — but you don’t have to lie, either. For example, when asked directly if Santa is real we can say, smiling, ‘I guess you have to figure that out for yourself,’ ‘What do you think?’ or ‘All I know is when I was little I put my stocking up and got stuff in it, and I think you should put one up, too.’ Many children say later that they knew deep inside but they chose to live as though they believed because it was fun.

Many kids take this approach (my eldest daughter included). Of course, there are those children that really want a straight out answer to their question or who don’t enjoy fantasy, and they will keep pushing for an answer. In that case the Santa game works great, and I think a response such as, “No, there isn’t a real Santa living in the North Pole, but it sure is fun to pretend, right?” is not going to hurt a child who truly wants to know the truth.

But it will hurt a child to know the truth when he or she really just wants a parent to play along with his or her desire to believe. It will also hurt a child, like my son, to be lied to in order to mix fantasy with reality. If we remember that our child is unique, we can let them lead us to find their joy so we can follow.

When my daughter was about 6 or 7, she asked me if we could leave out cookies and milk for Santa.  “I know he isn’t real,” she said, “but I just want to pretend he is.”  I thought that was perfectly fine, so we made some cookies especially for Santa each year since then and either her dad or I would eat a couple or take bites out of them and drink the milk.  It was a un little tradition and we would all laugh about it and “pretend” that Santa had come and eaten them. We’ve had many discussions about it through the years and she knows not to reveal anything to her cousins, etc. who do ‘believe,’ just out of respect for how their family wants to celebrate the holidays. She’s 15 now and I am glad I made the choice to raise her telling the truth but letting her “fantasize”…I think it’s the honest way to do it.  
— Julie

The truth is that kids find joy and wonder in the world regardless of whether you create fantasies for them. They create their own and they marvel at the world without needing any more than bare-bones reality. Some kids enjoy fantasy game-playing, some don’t, but they don’t need it to know that the world is miraculous, so long as they have lots of opportunities to be joyful and to wonder without being told ‘stop that, be careful, put it down, come here, don’t dawdle, you don’t want that, that’s nothing special.’

Most important, they need to be able to trust the most important people in their lives to not be deceptive — a lesson I learned the hard way.


Scary Santa photo available from Shutterstock

Santa Claus: Innocent Fantasy or Harmful Lie?

Chaley-Ann Scott

Chaley-Ann Scott, BA (Hons), IIS, ISA, is a sociologist, writer, parenting counsellor, and mother-of-four. She is a contributing editor to The Attached Family (Attachment Parenting International magazine), and a regular contributor to Mothering, Nurture, The Green Parent, The Mother, The Child, Kids on the Coast and Otherways. Her first book, The Shepherdess: A Guide to Mothering Without Control, is available in all good bookstores or online at or

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APA Reference
Scott, C. (2018). Santa Claus: Innocent Fantasy or Harmful Lie?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 5 Dec 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.