Discovering the Truth About Santa and Other Gift Givers

‘Twas the night before Saint Nicholas Day, and my wife and I blew it. We had stashed St. Nick’s gifts in the linen closet for easy deployment the next evening when the giver of gifts stops by unannounced to reward good children by leaving gifts on the doorstep. The closet doesn’t see a lot of traffic and I didn’t think twice about its suitability as a short-term hiding place until my daughter opened it up in search of a certain cuddly blanket. 

To make a long story short, she didn’t buy our explanations for why St. Nicholas would come early and go to all the bother of leaving the gifts in a closet when we all know that he leaves them on the doorstep. So we confessed the source of the gift. But even with one down, there are still two distinct gift givers to go whose reputations remain intact—the Christkind and Santa Claus—waiting in the wings of our Austro-American family tradition. 

Although, keeping it that way has been jeopardized by my fumbling attempts to maintain two distinct traditions. See, in (our version of) the Austrian tradition, the Christkind arrives on the evening of December 24th and not only puts up the tree but also brings all the presents (in a cloak-and-dagger operation behind closed doors). When the Christkind is finished, a bell rings and the family enters the living room, miraculously transformed into a festive scene of lights and gifts.

I think it’s a great tradition, and since we live in Austria, it’s what most everyone else is doing too. So there are no problems being consistent or whatever with that tradition—the issue is the overlapping role of Santa from my childhood tradition. When I was growing up, Santa only brought some of the presents after we’d all gone to bed on the 24th—most of the gifts were from family members to other family members and had been collecting under the tree since it was put up after Thanksgiving. And so on a number of occasions I have almost let the cat out of the bag by, for example, asking my daughter what she wants to give others in an effort to teach the principle that giving is better (or at least not way worse) than receiving. 

“But what about the Christkind?”

“Uh, right, yes, well, good point. Let’s not steal the Christkind’s thunder.”

As for Santa, these days he just comes and fills our socks (because I still like to wake up to a surprise, even if just a little one, on the 25th). While Santa may play a bit part in our current family tradition, he was, as I hinted above, the central figure of my childhood. And I can still vividly recall the moment when the scales fell from my eyes. 

The toy that gave it all away. 

It was around 8:00 a.m. on December 25th, 1983. Santa had brought me and my brother a Millennium Falcon (pictured above). During a lull in the festivities I left the living room and went into the kitchen. The door to the utility room was open and there, sitting on top of the chest freezer, was the cardboard box. Now, I was the kind of kid that, despite living in the desert, would go outside to see if I could find sleigh tracks in the dirt road in front of our house on Christmas morning.  So when I saw evidence that Santa had deviated from his normal route of rooftop > chimney > tree > chimney > rooftop, I began to harbor doubts that were confirmed before Christmas dinner by one of my older siblings. 

When I had a child of my own, I was a little conflicted about how to approach the magical gift givers in our lives. On the one hand, the magic is pretty cool while it lasts, and the unearned nature of the gifts could provide fodder for lessons about the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ. On the other, there’s 2 Nephi 25:23 and this talk telling us that, ultimately, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Plus, these gift givers are a fabrication that—at least in the context of how the Christkind operates around here—gets in the way of children learning how rewarding it can be to become a giver of gifts themselves. When everything falls like manna from the sky, it’s hard to appreciate one’s own role in bringing joy to others.  

In the end, we went the magical route, though we are not determined to sustain the charade at all costs. When our daughter notices a stray boom mic on the set of our Christmas traditions, we’ll acknowledging its existence and hope that the pleasure of receiving is supplanted by the joy of giving. 

Feel free to share your approaches to children, gift giving and the truth and/or relate that time when you learned that all is not as it seemed. 

Comments

  1. Santa was never super important to me. I remember believing for a year or two, but I think I figured it out on my own pretty early.

    I do know personally more than one person who found out about Santa and immediately went on to doubt the existence of God. One of them actually identifies that moment as the beginning of his atheism.

  2. I didn’t expect the giveaway to be the box; I expected it to be the parts missing from your toy. ;)

  3. The passage of 35 years is responsible for the lost parts :-)

  4. We have never pushed Santa on the kids. But when my 6 and 4 year old ask if Santa is real, I go into therapist mode, “What do you think?” “What would that mean to you?” “Why do you think you feel that way?” They believe in Santa and my hyper-rational 8 year old doesn’t but he doesn’t spoil it for them either because he likes how excited they get.

  5. I remember when I first began to doubt the Santa Clause story, I pushed those doubts aside, and in my child’s mind I associated doubting Santa with doubting God. But I got over it.

    With my own kids, we do gifts from Santa, but we’re not that committed to the lie, so my daughter figures it out pretty quickly, and when we started asked questions, we were honest with her. We try to approach Santa as a fun way to give gifts without seeking recognition or credit.

  6. Santa as a fun way to give gifts without seeking recognition or credit.

    I like that framing.

  7. My wife and I decided not to do Santa. We’ve told our kids from the beginning that Santa is something some kids like to pretend about and that’s okay (we don’t want them to educate their friends preemptively) but it’s actually family and friends who give the gifts. We have received a lot, and I mean a lot, of blowback over the years when people discover we don’t twirl our kids in this cultural dance called Santa Claus-our patriotism has even been questioned-but I trace it back to the moment I learned from a grumpy primary teacher that Santa is really Mom and Dad. I felt bitter about being lied to and vowed not to lie to my kids about anything, even if it seemed like it would be the easier route. It was (and still is) too easy a jump from “If they lied about that, then what else are they lying about?” Yes, the truth is warty, but better to journey through it together. This is obviously not even on the scale of something like “Life is Beautiful” so maybe my vow of truthfulness is a matter of degree and I’ve just chosen a spot beyond which most feel comfortable.

  8. our patriotism has even been questioned

    Heavens! I mean, even if one is convinced that there’s no downside to Santa, it seems that the spirit of the season would weigh against that kind of norm enforcement.

  9. Well, for some, the “spirit of the season” is not the birth of Jesus, but the “war on Christmas.”

  10. Decided early on not to do Santa with the kids. My oldest had exactly one year where she still believed somehow–I was so displeased I actually wrote a “letter from Santa” saying that Santa appreciated her belief and the plate of cookies, but since mom and dad had bought such lovely gifts, he was going to give his extra presents to kids in need. She’d figured it out by the next year without any embittered input from me. (“Santa can’t be at ALL the mall photo stations across the country at the same time!”) I asked her to be gentle with her peers who might still be caught up in the madness.

    I’m a convert from outside of Christianity, and Christmas is not my favorite. It strikes me as having nothing to do with the Gospel. Bah humbug.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    When I grew up, our gift-giving practice was we got to open one gift on Christmas Eve just before bed, which our parents picked and was always something like pajamas, slippers or a robe, Christmas morning our main gift was from Santa and would be unwrapped, and all the wrapped gifts were from family members and friends.

    I first learned for sure what the deal was when I was seven in 1965. I was snooping, so I apparently had unconfirmed doubts. I looked in the closet to my dad’s den (strictly verboten), and saw what would be my Santa gift that year. I won an Academy Award feigning surprise (or so I imagined it; maybe my parents could tell), but I resolved never to snoop again, and I didn’t. (It was an arcade gun game where you would shoot these ball bearing “bullets” from a gun attached to an enclosed set of moving targets. It was the equivalent to me of Ralphie’s bb gun, possibly the greatest Christmas present I ever received, and I was annoyed with myself for sullying the experience with my snooping.)

    We did the same protocol with our own children, and we gave unwrapped major Santa gifts for years after they knew whence those gifts came. My wife finally talked me out of doing it that way, because we were depriving them of the joy of unwrapping what would be their most expensive gift every year, so it has been a long time since we had nominal “Santa” gifts under the tree Christmas morn.

  12. We’ve emphasized from the beginning that Santa is a symbol of Christmas, and he can remind us of Jesus. We talk about the other symbols as well (evergreens, lights, candy canes, etc.). And that’s how we answer the kids’ questions – “Is Santa real?” “Santa is a symbol of Christmas and reminds us of Jesus.” When I was a kid my parents always said, “The spirit of Santa Claus is real.” I don’t know when the whole truth dawned on me, but I wasn’t traumatized in the least. I think it’s because Santa was not the center of our celebrations, but as you say, played a bit part. I really like this picture book which connects Santa to the Savior (giver of gifts, wears red, etc. in a simple, relatable way for kids: https://www.amazon.com/Believe-Santa-Claus-Diane-Adamson/dp/0967357101

  13. My parents usually put a few christmas gifts under the tree “from Santa” but never pretended he was real. I remember becoming fully cognizant of Santa Claus shortly after I turned 4, likely due to “The Night Before Christmas” poem. So my little brother and I asked my father if Santa was real. His answer was “Santa Claus is people who love you.” We tried to persuade him that he was wrong, or get my mother to contradict him, just because it would be really fun if Santa WAS real, but they were united in their understanding and cheerfully unmoved.

    Ultimately that left us free to do any childlike imagining and pretending about Santa that we wanted to, in the same way we loved to imagine fairies and swashbuckling pirates etc. (which we also thought would be really fun if they were real), but with no disillusionment when we freely decided not to engage in that pleasant pretending. For me that parental way of dealing with the issue of Santa was exactly right.

  14. I believed in Santa hook, line, and sinker for too long causing me some pain as a youth. I had absolute faith and assumed my parents weren’t going to deceive me. Only when I was involved in a school yard fight over the validity of Santa did my mother finally reveal what Santa was all about. From that moment cynicism became in-bedded in my persona! That myth did have a profound impact that I am sure was unique with just me. But as a parent I was really careful my children didn’t have the same experience and still enjoyed the Christmas experience.
    Merry Christmas to all.

  15. I’m a big fan of Santa. At our house, he brings one or two gifts, and the rest come from family and friends. I have no idea when I learned that Santa wasn’t real, but also didn’t suffer any trauma from the revelation.

    At our house (well, apartment), we don’t have a ton of gift hiding spots, So we told out kids that their gifts are all in boxes in our bedroom. Also, that if they look at the presents before Christmas, they risk losing all of them. Our kids are risk-averse enough that they’re not ruining surprises (unlike Amazon, which delivered one of my gifts in the box you’d buy it at at the store, and one of my wife’s gifts in the same box it used to send one of her gifts for me; we no longer believe in Amazon in our household, but we’re totally down with Santa!).

  16. Great post! This is something I stress about, because I believed in Santa until I was nearly 12, and, like some other posters have mentioned, when the Santa paradigm came crashing down, I began to question faith a lot more actively (in a not terrible way, in retrospect). I had to do some major mental gymnastics to believe in Santa for as long as I did, but I always managed it. I was bright for a 6th-grader, and I was good at logic puzzles. But I NEEDED Santa to be real. I wanted him to be real. When I finally asked my mom, I could tell she was so relieved (her policy was not to tell unless asked). I found out that same day that my little sister had stopped believing years earlier, but was told not to tell me. That was humiliating, too.

    So I initially wasn’t going to do Santa with my kids. Or I had ideas that we would just put ALL of the presents under the tree from Santa, and when our kids were old enough to give presents, tell them to say they are from Santa, too, *wink wink*.

    But THEN I toured Concord, Massachusetts, and listened to a guide at the Alcott home talk about Thoreau or Emerson or one of the transcendentalists charming young Louisa May Alcott with evidences of fairies from the forests—flower blossoms that were really fairies’ satchels, locations where fairies were almost certainly hiding in their homes. I loved that kind of magic as a girl. I loved believing in it. And then I saw letters that Tolkien had left his children from Father Christmas, and it has made me all sentimental again. So this year (my kids are all very young still) I am trying something akin to Tolkien and having the gift-opening begin with the reading of a letter from Father and Mother Christmas with specific reasons for why they are proud of the Grover family this year, and perhaps some justifications for why they selected the gifts they brought to the family this year. We’ll see how it goes.

  17. I gave up believing in Santa when I was eleven, although I had my doubts for a couple years. (I was a very gullible child.) I don’t remember asking my parents if Santa was real, I just kept my thoughts to myself.
    My husband’s family didn’t celebrate Christmas. His mother is a JW and his father just went along with her non-celebration.
    We decided to have our kids grow up with the Santa story. My husband missed out on the magic side of Christmas and wanted our kids to have it, although I would have been fine if we didn’t make as big a deal out of it. Our kids get one present from Santa and the rest from us. Our kindergartener goes to school a few more days before winter break, and I’m just waiting for him to get off the bus asking if Santa is real. I think I’m going with the “Santa is just a fun way to pretend at Christmas but we can be like Santa to others” approach.

  18. I remember being about four and not really believing in Santa (my parents did not try very hard to encourage belief). I haven’t been much of a Santa fan, so I didn’t do much about it with my kids, who, naturally, became ardent Santa-lovers. I was not thrilled. I just made sure never to tell them anything that wasn’t true and let them do their thing. At 8, it was time for Dad to break the news officially, by which time they were well on their way anyhow. After that, they were happy to keep the dream alive for younger kids.

  19. Peter, two notes:

    1) Santa is real. Though believing otherwise is a perfectly legitimate and constitutionally protected choice, of course. It’s just wrong, that’s all.

    2) Free lunches are also real. In fact, there is nothing except free lunches. People convince themselves otherwise, and have built up whole, extensive, undeniably successful wealth-creating socio-economic structures on the basis of that belief, but they’re also wrong.

  20. (Also, Emily: great approach! I strongly approve.)

  21. (Also, Emily: excellent approach! I strongly approve.)

  22. How any rational person doesn’t believe in Santa is beyond me. Billions of gifts every year and somehow Santa is not real?!?

  23. My mom was German, 2nd generation American, and we celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6, She never missed a year with us when we were kids and in later years she would send gifts to us, far from home, to keep the tradition going with our own children.
    This year I sent little gifts to my daughters to share with their husbands and children.
    One of my daughters video taped her 2 year old running down the stairs to see his gift in his slippers by the tree. What glee!
    When we were young the gifts would be nail polish or hair accessories or new socks, always a small token gift to start the season. It was and is a wonderful tradition.
    Carry on…

  24. 2) Free lunches are also real

    I wholeheartedly agree, just pointing out the opposition-in-all-things angle from the good book and powers that be.

  25. I remember feeling so disturbed as child when my mother refused to give me a straight answer bout Father Christmas. As my own children were growing up we explained Father Christmas as a game that parents like to play with their children. I absolutely didn’t want to lie to them.
    My son reports that this did not stop him from believing that singing Popcorn Popping made the popcorn pop however…

  26. Peter, wonderful post. For my answer may I give a link to a post relevant to the issue?

  27. Learning the truth about Santa was devastating for me. I think I was eleven. It may have been Christmas Eve that I tearfully asked my mom if he were real but she wouldn’t give me the dignity of a reply as my younger brother was in the room. Because of this news and what turned out to be SAD, Christmas wasn’t terribly happy for me for the next decade, most evident in tension mounting between my parents and me. I will not be doing Santa with my children.

  28. Lona, sure, no problem.

  29. We do Santa but don’t make a huge deal about it. I don’t take my kids to see Santa unless we happen to be at some party where he is there. I definitely don’t participate in the whole “you’d better be good because Santa is watching you” thing. I also try not to let my kids carry their belief in Santa too long. When my children start to naturally question Santa’s existence, I respond by asking them, “What do you think?” My daughter got to the point between ages 7-8 or so when I could tell that she didn’t really think he was real but wasn’t quite ready to face it. She still wanted him to be real. My response to her questions and comments was always “When you are ready for me to tell you the real, truthful story, I will. Are you ready for me to tell you? Do you really want to know?” She would always say no. Until one day she was ready, and I did tell her. I feel like this approach allowed her to make a gentle transition between believing and not believing and allowed me to be more authentic and honest while still preserving the magic. I currently have an 8 year old who still believes, and I think it may be a bit more dicey for him, so I will be treading carefully and considering how to approach it. As much as I love that he feels the magic, with this particular child it will probably be best to know the truth sooner rather than later. The other thing I do is read my children books about the real, historical St. Nicholas (we celebrate his day too) so that eventually they can make the connection as to how the Santa myth got started.

  30. Also… when I was five years old, a friend of my parents dressed up as Santa and came to our house on Christmas Eve. This kept me believing for a very long time, since I had actually seen the “real Santa”–he came to my house! I was probably 11 when my friends told me the truth and laughed at my story. I wasn’t bitter or devastated, nor did I feel deceived or lied to. I just felt really stupid for continuing to believe in something that was obviously impossible.

  31. Lisa, your approach with your kids is great. I am sad that you felt stupid because you believed a long time. I don’t think it is stupid to be able to hang onto some magic, in fact it may be smart. 🙂 🎅🏻

  32. If a child discovers her parents have lied to her about Santa Claus, would that child be

    1. More likely to disbelieve her parents about Jesus Christ,
    2. Less likely to disbelieve her parents about Jesus Christ,
    or
    3. Neither more or less likely to disbelieve her parents about Jesus Christ,

    and why?

    Now, let us generalize this question:

    If an authority figure is discovered to have lied about a non-publicly observable fact, will those in submission to that authority figure be:

    1. More likely to disbelieve the authority about other non-public facts,
    2. Less likely to disbelieve the authority about other non-public facts,
    or
    3. Neither more nor less likely to disbelieve the authority about other non-public facts,

    and why?

    Bonus question: if the authority figure’s authority over subservients derives from claims about non-publicly observable facts, then what may be predicted with confidence about the degree of obedience those in submission will yield to the authority?

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