December rituals are similar in millions of households around the U.S. There’s a big buildup to Christmas with trips to visit Santa workshops and photo shoots with Santa (that promptly go on the Facebook page or family website). “The Night Before Christmas” becomes a bedtime story. TV specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and, of course, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas now run almost 24/7. Local top 40 radio stations run novelty Santa songs all day.

On the eve of the big day, stockings are hung and cookies and milk are set out for Santa as well as a carrot for Rudolph. Some parents even take a bite out of the cookie and write a thank-you note from Mr. Claus for the kids to find the next day.

It is part of the magic of Christmas for children and a nostalgic visit back to childhood for adults. For those who had wonderful childhood Christmases, it’s a chance to recreate them. For those whose Christmases were less than wonderful, it’s a chance to do it better. So we adults engage in a conspiracy of tales. What would Christmas be without the story of a jelly-bellied elf who somehow gets around the world in one night to deliver presents and treats to good little girls and boys?

Then comes the thud of reality.

“Mom? Is Santa real? Some kids at school said he isn’t and I said he is and they laughed at me.” Somewhere around 6 or 7 or 8, your child poses that dreaded question. It can mark the end of a certain kind of innocence for the child and an end of a fun chapter of parenting for the adults. Or not. How we respond can make the moment into a tearful, even angry, confrontation or a sweet transition into a new kind of magic.

How to Make the Transition

  • It’s important to get clear about what the Santa story means to us. One of the reasons the question is so hard to answer is that it doesn’t really lend itself to an easy yes or no. Oh, I suppose on the face of it, it does. There isn’t a guy at the North Pole with a legion of elves making toys all year and keeping surveillance on all small children to see who deserves to get them on December 25. But there is something important enough about the myth that for a couple hundred years adults have been conspiring to make it seem real. If we can get in touch with why we love the story so much, we can soften the revelation that Santa isn’t real with the conviction that what he stands for very much is.
  • When your child asks if there’s really a Santa, it’s important to think carefully about what he is really asking. Does your child in fact want the truth or does she want reassurance that it’s okay to keep pretending for awhile longer? Someone once told me that when children ask about Santa it is much like when they ask about where they came from. Some kids want a biology lesson. Some want to know they were born in Cleveland. Similarly, some kids want the whole truth about Santa and some want to be left in reasonable doubt.
  • Consider the age and stage of your child. A 10-year-old who still believes unequivocally that there is a real Santa will be at a clear disadvantage on the playground where most of the other kids don’t. A 4-year-old who insists there isn’t a Santa may well become the focus of sandbox hostility (and you the recipient of phone calls from their very annoyed parents). For 3 to 6 year olds, the world of imagination, including Santa’s North Pole, is an important place to visit. For older children, reconciling story and reality is part of growing up. There’s no definite age for the transition. It’s up to us to know our children well enough to sense where they are on that continuum.
  • Be prepared. Different kids have different reactions. Some kids respond to the news that Santa is a story with relief. They needed to have their perception of reality confirmed. Others respond with anger at their parents for having “lied” to them. They need help understanding that participating in a sweet story of childhood is not a fundamental betrayal of trust. Lies are intended to help someone get away with something they know they shouldn’t do. Playing “let’s pretend” about Santa is intended to make things fun. Still other kids break down in tears. They need comfort and reassurance that no Santa doesn’t mean no Christmas.

Whatever the case, the first response is something to ride out with sympathy and understanding. Then it’s our job to move past it to another level.

Becoming Part of Making the Holiday Magic

  • Santa is a symbol of generosity and goodness. Our Santa is based on the story of a real person, St. Nicholas of Myra, who gave all he could to those in need. Stories about him (and Mrs. Claus and the elves) are intended to remind us all to be giving and good. Explain to your child that when we are no longer the recipients, we become the creators of the fun and magic.

    Part of growing up is understanding that the spirit of a Santa can always be within us and then making the magic happen for others. That’s why even grownups like to be “Secret Santas” for friends or office mates. It’s why people like to pretend a gift they put under the tree is from Santa. It’s why adults enjoy paying a visit to Santa (and sometimes even to sit on his lap) as much as the kids do.

  • Help your child become an active magic-maker. Older kids can stay up to help put some presents under the tree. Younger kids can help you label some gifts “from Santa with love” to give to relatives. Everyone can be a “Santa” by participating in a toy drive for needy families, by taking food to the local food pantry, or by throwing coins in a Salvation Army bucket.

Finally – do what you can to keep the magic alive at least a little. Slip something into stockings or under the tree for each member of the family that is “from Santa” and deny that it was you – with a wink, a smile, and a big Santa-type ho-ho-ho.