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Posted on Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 5:30 a.m.

Do you believe in Santa Claus?

By Kerry Novick

Dear Kerry, We don’t do Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy in our family. But my sister-in-law now refuses to visit during the holidays because she’s afraid that my kids will ruin the “magic of Christmas” for her kids, by telling them there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. What do you suggest? What do you think about Santa Claus, anyway? A Dad in Ann Arbor

Dear Ann Arbor Dad, People might think that Santa Claus is not a big deal for grownups, but I know differently! You are raising a big issue, one that causes surprisingly intense feelings in lots of people. In your post you describe the dilemma well - for you Santa Claus and such figures make no sense, so you haven’t introduced them to your kids. But your sister-in-law really has an investment in her kids believing in these fantasy characters. I guess it’s connected to each person’s childhood experiences and most of us feel pretty strongly, positively or negatively, about childhood things. Everyone tends to choose on purpose whether to do what their parents did or to do something different. Holidays are a time when traditions are observed; those who want to maintain them care a lot about their own family traditions, wanting their children to have the best of what they had when they were little.

But let’s think harder about childhood experiences around the idea of Santa Claus - not all memories of Santa Claus turn out to be so rosey. Often after starting off with general remarks about the fun, mystery and excitement of the holidays, parents have shared some stories with me over the years that paint a darker picture of this automatic holiday feature.

One mom talked about being the last child in her class that believed in Santa Claus. She was teased and ridiculed on the playground for being a baby. She was angry with her mother for exposing her to that humiliation by not helping her let go of the Santa Claus illusion.

A dad, who grew up to be an engineer, realized at 5 that there was no way that big fat man could fit down their chimney. But his parents seemed so committed to it as a reality. He felt sorry for his ignorant parents and felt he had to protect them from their own foolishness by pretending for another few years that he believed it too. That wasn’t good for his relationship and respect for them.

Another dad talked about his pain when he learned that his parents had lied to him. How could he trust them about other things?

A mom of 5-year-old twins alerted me to another problem. She said she was already feeling a little uncomfortable about the whole Santa Claus myth, but then realized also that she was using it to discipline, or even threaten, her kids. She said, “I didn’t like hearing myself say that Santa wouldn’t bring any presents if they didn’t brush their teeth!” When another mom, who was having the conversation with us, heard that, she remembered being scared when she was little that there was this guy who knew what she was thinking and knew if she didn’t go to sleep right away. It made her feel guilty and then it was even harder to go to sleep, much less feeling that she had no privacy in her thoughts.

I have had parents question, though, whether it is really a lie to talk about Santa Claus as if he is real. One parent likened it to religious concepts, where we talk to children about things they can’t actually see, that may be beyond their understanding or unrealistic on the face of it.

There is a crucial difference, to my mind, between sharing values and beliefs of your own with your children, as you do with religion or morality, and telling them something is true that you don’t actually believe. If you believe in Santa Claus too, then you aren’t lying to your child. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, and say that he is real, you are lying to your child. I’ve stated this bluntly, for the sake of the logic of the situation, but I do have a solution to suggest that is based in the history of the Santa Claus idea.

The historical Christian Saint Nicholas was noted for his care for the needy and his devotion to children. In other words, the story is one of loving and giving. That is a beautiful story, filled with important feelings and messages for people of all ages. And there doesn’t have to be any magic around loving and giving, since that is what we all really do at this time of year, for our families and our communities.

You might say to your children that “Santa Claus is a beautiful story that many people all around the world tell at this time of year, when we especially show our love for each other. When we tell about Santa bringing gifts, we are talking about the gifts of love and caring, which we also show with presents to each other.” In this way, you are pointing out the underlying meaning of Christmas and de-emphasizing the material. In an ongoing way, you are also teaching the difference between real and pretend and enriching your child’s mind with an understanding of symbols and metaphors.

You can tell your children that “everyone loves that beautiful story. Some people love it so much that they want to believe it’s true. We respect other people’s beliefs, so we won’t disagree or make fun of them. You and they can each think what you want, and everyone can enjoy loving and giving at Christmas.”

Perhaps if you explain your position that way to your sister-in-law, she will be able to visit with pleasure and have both families share the holidays joyously!

Enjoy the holidays, everyone! May this dark time of the year be filled for your family with the lights of Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and memories of Diwali! Best wishes as we move into a Happy New Year!

Kerry Kelly Novick is a local psychoanalyst and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through, or you can email her your comments and questions for future columns.


Kerry Novick

Thu, Dec 24, 2009 : 8:56 a.m.

Dear enthusiastic and thoughtful readers, What a lot of interesting and insightful comments! It sure does seem that everyone has an opinion and strong feelings about Santa. There is a parallel discussion today at Check it out - many of the posts echo those put up here, and there are commentaries by experts from various fields. Thanks for your interest - Kerry


Wed, Dec 23, 2009 : 2:20 p.m.

It's an interesting discussion. I can't say I haven't thought of it. I'm honest with my kids about everything else. This year I have found my son really wants to believe in Santa, and so we will carry it on. Yesterday he asked me if Santa really brings the presents. I asked him what he wanted to believe. He said he wanted to believe in Santa. I told him, St. Nicholas is a very giving and loving person, and that the legend is true. Perhaps that's a cop out. But he felt happy. Someday he might, conversely, wish his mom would have allowed him to imagine more. I do want him to be largely grounded in reality, but a little of this, for us, will be fine. And for the record, I'm a very happy Allen Creek Preschool mom and parent! And so you can see, ALL beliefs are valued and welcome there! The whole child and the whole family. The point is the thoughtfulness behind the questions and discussion. I've had these thoughts, and have also realized I don't want to use Santa as a threat. Conversations like this, with other parents, help me to remind me not to just tow the line with the knee-jerk reactions that come to mind. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Happy New Year. Joyeux Noel. Enjoy this season for the reasons intended: peace, giving and love.

sun runner

Wed, Dec 23, 2009 : 10:26 a.m.

I remember being about six years old and sitting on the hearth of our tiny California fireplace, peering into the firebox and thinking, "There's no way anyone can fit down this chimney." (I was too logical and analytical even as a wonder I grew up to be a scientist.) When I asked my mom about it, she told me it was "magic." Even at six I knew there was no such thing as "magic." I wish she had just told me the truth. As it was, my suspicions were confirmed the next year when my best friend told me she had seen her mother putting all her presents under their Christmas tree in the middle of the night. And then I said, "I KNEW IT!" I'm not resentful as an adult; I just don't think my childhood was made more special or enriched in any way by my believing in Santa Claus.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 11:09 p.m.

Jordan..Wonderfully said! My parents not only gave us gifts from Santa but from Rudolph, The Elves, Frosty, and sometimes even our own dogs! I remember the day I learned about Santa and thought wow! my parents were the ones that were giving me these amazing presents, warmth, food,and love all along, what a giving and magical thing to do. I can only hope to do the same for my own children.

Jordan Miller

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 10:38 p.m.

I STILL remember being so mad at my mom when I found out. I yelled, "You lied to me!" And now, as adults, my family laughs about it. And I fully expect that, one day, my son will be pretty peeved, too. But I also expect that he'll turn around and do the same thing. There's something a bit, well, spoiled about holding a grudge against your parents into adulthood over Santa Claus. I mean, come on. It's parents doing their best to make a holiday incredibly special and magical for their kids. Anyone who genuinely resents their parents for it needs to take a good look at their attitude towards their parents in general. And, frankly, be really grateful they had the kind of parents who cared enough to try that hard (and who don't have worse trespasses to resent them for).


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 9:59 p.m.

I suspect that the friend who resented her parents for perpetuating the Santa myth had other issues going on with her folks. And I'm right there with Jordan. Parents in my generation (I think not limited to Ann Arbor) seem to think that there is a correct answer to everything, and that some expert can tell them how to do it. There are so many experts with conflicting advice. If only it were that simple to find the "right" one. Know your kids. Know that you won't always get it right. Keep trying.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 7:08 p.m.

A 5 year old respects you soley because you are their parent. The question here is whether as adults or older children they will still respect you for reasons beyond pure biology. I hope my child will respect that we were truthful to our convictions--whether this is the conviction that kids need magic, or the conviction that it's all hooey. If you are matter-of-fact or logical with your kid about other immaterial things--fairies, goblins, Jesus...then it's trickery to treat Santa as real. And if you are all about the unseen, then go ahead and talk up Santa, but when your kid stops believing, have an explanation of why the fantasy was more important than the logic. Some kids stop believing very early, and some never really start. My girl has been skeptical and analytical. She wants to know how things really work. The questions are earnest, why should we brush them aside with a frivilous answer? Reading between the psycho speak, I like that Novick tries to give a realistic response that still has room for love and wonder about the humans that are actually here. And her position that--wow--little kids and their ideas can be respected--that doesn't seem a reason to beat on the school. If a child really wants to believe, and is happy believing, then it is sad to analyze it death. However, if a child doesn't believe, then it is sad to ignore their core and shove it down them.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 6:09 p.m.

@ Jordan Miller - I couldn't have said it better myself! You so hit the nail on the head.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 5:46 p.m.

Jordan and SPM and Macabre Sunset Agreed! We are loosing the magic of childhood. No wonder so many kids by the age of 9 have weight issues, depression issues, self-esteem issues, need to be wearing the latest clothes (ala Girl GAP Cheerleading Ad (Moose), have cell phones, ipods, pushed to perform etc... the list goes on. Not believing or believing in Santa Claus should be the least of a psychoanalysts worries. Seriously, a 5 year old lost respect for his parents because of Santa not fitting down a chimmney. Sounds like there was more at issue here then Santa. Thank goodness my children aren't at Allen Creek Preschool, is all I have to say.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 3:17 p.m.

I loved Santa Claus. Of course, I had questions like - how does he get in the house when we don't have a fireplace? How come the toys say they were made in Taiwan and not the North Pole? But even those questions didn't outweigh the absolute excitement of the Christmas season. It was a sad day for me when I actually told my mother (and not the other way around) that I knew there wasn't a Santa. I think all kids should get at least 5 good years of believing without adulthood crowding in. What partypoopers if they don't let them believe in a little magic!

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 2:14 p.m.

Somehow, I don't see Mommy kissing this particular Santa Claus under the mistletoe.

Jordan Miller

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 1:49 p.m.

Honestly! Sometimes being a parent in this town is so frustrating, between the anti-stroller moms and the over-analysis of everything. For the love of Pete. We're going to turn our kids into a bunch of neurotic wusses who have had everything over-explained to them. Are you seriously going to tell me that a 5-year-old who can't figure out how Santa can fit down the chimney will have his relationship with his parents ruined because he no longer respects them? My five-year-old respects me because I'm his mom. And that's enough. Oh, and by the way, Hi Santa! It's awesome that you commented on here! We're big fans.

Top Cat

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 1:38 p.m.

How can people take something as simple and wonderful as Santa Claus and turn it into a problem? Merry Christmas to all!

Santa Claus

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 1:20 p.m.

Dear Kerry: Since you referred to me by my name, I thought I'd comment. Parents who tell their children that Santa Claus does not exist will have a tough time apologizing later, once their children realize that, in fact, Santa Claus does exist. My legal name is Santa Claus, and I'm a full-time volunteer advocate, with The Santa Claus Foundation, for the 2 million children in the U.S. annually who are abused, neglected, exploited, abandoned, homeless, and institutionalized through no fault of their own. That's 1 out of 37 children in our great nation. I'm also a Christian Monk, as St. Nicholas was many centuries ago, and believe that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, not the crass, commercial, secular spectacle it has become in many places, and that the greatest gift one can give is love, not presents. I would hope that readers will support their local community charity or agency addressing the basic needs of these millions of vulnerable children in dire straits, especially this winter when many will not have enough food to eat or adequate shelter. Christmas Blessings to all, Santa Claus

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 12:45 p.m.

Does that include accepting those of us who see morals as having nothing to do with religion? Christmas means different things to different families. It saddens me that people assume it's some sort of religious festival. It is to some. Not all.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 11:23 a.m.

It saddens me that there is not more of an emphasis on St. Nicholas. Christmas is a Christian holiday (as noted in Christ-mass or the Mass of the Christ). Saint Nicholas is the common name for Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop of Myra. He spread joy through small gifts to the poor. This is the spirit of Christmas, giving to those we love and those who are in need. My childhood pain came from arguing on the playground that there was a St. Nicholas, modern day Santa Claus was the phony. Luckily I had very supportive teachers who did explain to the class the difference between the two. I believe that we must instill our religious and moral beliefs in our children, which includes accepting those who do not see the world the way we do.

Maggi Idzikowski

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 9:07 a.m.

These are my exact thoughts on Santa Claus. In my house growing up, there was no emphasis on "believing" in Santa, but my parents enjoyed decorating using Santas and reading The Night Before Christmas. We made a natural progression from child to adult and never thought much about Santa.