I’d been dreading the moment for eight years and four months, and the other day it happened.
We were watching The Santa Clause, and as the characters discussed whether Father Christmas was real or not, Big Sis turned to me.
‘Mum,’ she asked. ‘Tell me the truth now… are you Santa Clause?’
For a microsecond my body froze. ‘Pfffffft,’ I laughed (hopefully) nonchalantly. ‘Have you ever seen me with a beard and a red suit?’
She stared at me for a moment, then smiled and nodded, seemingly satisfied by my answer. I let out a breath. Phew. I’d pulled it off with my deft deflection, AND I hadn’t actually lied to her, so morally I was on still on the high ground.
OK, I’d lied by omission. But that was fine, right? Because I was only doing it so she had a magical childhood memory. Or was I actually setting her up for a life of distrust, rooted in the knowledge the person she trusted implicitly had actively deceived her for years? Aaaaarrrgh!
I was a little older than Lil Sis when I started questioning Santa. My younger sister actually planted that first seed of doubt in my mind. We’d woken at my Nana’s house on Christmas morning to find a bulging sack of pressies at the foot of each bed.
‘Santa’s been!’ I shouted. To which my sister replied bluntly: ‘It wasn’t Santa, it was mum – I woke up in the night and saw her.’
My whole world took a big, lazy loop. Wait, what?!
I remember feeling confused, and a bit deflated. Of course I’d asked myself all the questions – how did he get to EVERY house in the world in just one night? And how did he know we were at Nana’s, rather than at home?
My rational brain had doubts, but my imaginative brain just wasn’t ready to give up the Christmas magic. Still, I never asked Mum outright – I preferred to keep that sliver of possibility alive.
A few more years passed, and the weight of evidence finally grew too heavy to ignore. Sure, the magical sheen wore off a teensy bit, but it didn’t make me look forward to Xmas any less. Instead, the focus shifted away from Father Christmas and more towards family, which was just as lovely.
Looking back, although I was disappointed to find out Santa wasn’t real, I wouldn’t have changed the experience. For me, it was better to have loved and lost Santa, than never to have loved Santa at all.
Now I have my own children I’m able to relive that magic through them, and I ADORE it. But I have to admit to having some conflicting thoughts.
It’s always been important to me to always tell the girls the truth – with some age-appropriate fudging every so often, of course.
So am I being a hypocrite by allowing them to believe Santa is real?
I’ve always been careful how I present them with information. OH and I aren’t religious, so I don’t like bible stories being presented to them as fact – instead I encourage them to find out about all sides and opinions, and decide for themselves what they believe to be true.
So I decided to do the same here. I asked a group of mums what they thought about the Santa story – is it a magical tradition, or a potentially damaging lie?
Emily is a mum of three, and the founder of International Elf Service, which sends a box of elf-written letters from the ‘North Pole’ for you to pass on to your child from December 1, until Christmas Eve.
While she agrees that telling children about Santa requires a white lie, she believes it’s more than counterbalanced by the joy it brings.
‘For many of us in the UK it’s part of our culture, and it’s one of the Christmas traditions I couldn’t wait to pass on – the anticipation, the suspense and the whole wonderfulness of Christmas Eve,’ she says.
She says she’s received so many wonderful messages from families who’ve received her Elf letters, thanking her for extending the magic of Christmas and for giving their children a window into the magical world of the North Pole.
However, she does draw a ‘line in the snow’. ‘I cannot look my children in the eye and say Santa is real,’ she says. She skirts their questions by asking one in return, putting the ball back into their court and allowing them to draw their own conclusions.
‘It may sound hypocritical, but I think you naturally grow into the truth,’ she says.
‘I think if I’d been traumatised as a child when I found out it was all a myth, I may have thought differently about passing it on, but I SO loved all the magic around it as a child, and I still do.’
She adds: ‘I see it as a precious part of our childhood days, when we genuinely believe that anything is possible. How wonderful is that?’
Lizzie is a mum of two and blogs at Maybe It’s Just Wind, and has a different take.
She remembers believing in Santa Claus as a child, but can’t recall a particular moment, or feeling upset, when she discovered otherwise.
‘I do remember being asked to help my mum get my little sister’s stocking ready, which was a neat way to make me feel part of the magic, even though I was a little bit too old to believe it myself any more,’ she says.
Despite this, she’s never felt entirely comfortable repeating the story to her own daughter.
‘My daughter is so sweet and trusting,’ she explains. ‘I don’t get much pleasure from telling this enormous lie when she relies on me to teach her about the world.’
She believes that children can get just as much delight from knowing it’s just a story. ‘She doesn’t need to be lied to in order to experience the feeling of magic, kids find magic in stories and play all day long.’
She also encourages her daughter her to find just as much wonder in things that are real – science, nature and the arts.
However, she often finds it awkward to find that perfect balance between encouraging imagination and remaining truthful, particularly since everyone else is ‘in on the act’.
Father Christmas is such an ingrained part of British life often other people will add confusion: assuming you’ve told your children about Santa Claus they’ll ask what they’ve put on their Christmas list.
‘Plus, if I tell my kid, categorically, Santa is not real then she might go and repeat it to other children.’ Lizzie adds.
Psychologist Dr John Kremer adds another side to the debate. He brings up the sociological theory that relationships are a process of social exchange.
Put very simply – when we give we expect something of equal value to be received back. This reward could be something tangible, like money or possessions, or intangible, like time, affection or support. For a social relationship to work there must be the right balance between what you give out, and what you get back.
Christmas is a prime example. Yes, it’s (supposedly) the thought that counts, but hands up who’d be miffed if you splashed out on a pricey gift for the other half, and they only got you a card in return? It’s not the monetary amount that matters, it’s the perception that they haven’t put as much effort in, and thereby they care less.
As Dr Kremer points out, young children find themselves tangled up in these unwritten rules of social behaviour at Xmas time. They’re receiving gifts, but don’t have the resources or social skills to respond appropriately.
The character of Father Christmas gives children an ‘out’, as his very role is to give presents without expecting anything in return (parents, however, are still expected to play their part in the exchange by leaving a mince pie and a glass of milk).
‘When the red cloak is pulled aside what is revealed is a bearded philanthrope playing out a crucial role within the minefield of social exchange we call Christmas,’ Dr Kremer explains.
‘It can be argued that Father Christmas is best described as benign, surely the whitest of white lies?
Laura Dove, who writes at Five Little Doves, agrees completely – in fact, she goes so far as to say she will never tell her children Father Christmas doesn’t exist, because, at the age of 36, she still chooses to believe in the magic.
Laura believes that ‘is he real or isn’t he?’ feeling is actually part of the fun.
‘I think that every child should get those butterflies in their tummy on Christmas morning, when the lounge door is flung open to reveal the presents,’ she says. ‘Christmas IS the most magical time of year and I will do everything I can to carry on that magic for as long as possible.’
Sara isn’t so sure; she grew up with parents who were very open about the fact Santa wasn’t real.
‘I don’t think it made Christmas any bit less magical,’ she says. ‘We still had stockings and the excitement of going to bed and knowing that my parents would have filled them full fit to burst before morning was enormous.’
She also makes a good point – that her parents wanted her to understand the presents didn’t just appear by magic: they had been bought with their hard-earned money and they wanted them to appreciate that. ‘And we did,’ she says.
I must admit that has bothered me too in the past – spending all this time and money to get the perfect presents, only for someone else to take the credit. Hurrumph. Plus, I always found it hard to keep track of what OH and I have given the girls, and which ones ‘Santa’ has left them.
Sara also has concerns about Santa being used to blackmail children into behaving properly.
‘I visibly squirm when I see a parent ‘phoning Santa’ because their child’s having a meltdown in Tesco in July,’ she shudders.
Nor does the premise of an intruder coming into the house sit well with her. I can see her point – we teach our children not to speak or interact with strangers, yet at this one time of year, we encourage them to do exactly that.
‘At the end of the day, it’s a big lie that parents tell their kids. And I do believe it causes confusion, anger when they eventually find out the truth and possibly even resentment and mistrust towards parents,’ she says.
Despite her own strong feelings, Sara was careful not to force her own views on to her children.
When my first child – probably aged no more than two – asked me if he was real, I replied: “What do you think?”,’ she explains. ‘When he said no, I took my lead from him.’
She doesn’t feel her children have missed out on any of the festive magic.
‘My children both love Christmas and with no Santa myth in place, they have nothing to lose when the bubble inevitably bursts,’ she says. ‘With Santa out the equation, Christmas is all about family and not bearded men in red suits.’
Psychologist Dr Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay throw yet another perspective into the mix by musing whether Santa Claus is, in fact, more about the parent than the child.
Writing for a psychiatry magazine, the pair suggests telling our children about Father Christmas might actually stem from our own desire to return to the joy of childhood.
I’m definitely guilty of that – part of the joy of seeing my kids all excited is getting to feel that magic all over again myself. But are we inadvertently damaging our kids by doing so?
Professor Boyle, of the University of Exeter, says: ‘The morality of making children believe in such myths has to be questioned.’
He wonders if a child’s trust in their parents may be undermined by the Santa lie. ‘If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?’ he asks.
However, the article does go on to concede that sometimes white lies can be overlooked because of the comfort they bring, and perhaps the harshness of life requires us to occasionally suspend reality and let a little magic into our lives.
Sharon grew up in a family that always made a huge fuss of Christmas. She remembers listening in awe as her dad revealed he’d had a drink with Santa Claus and has no resentment about the fact he was dishonest with her.
‘I didn’t grow up with trust issues because my parents chose to tell some white lies,’ she says. ‘I love the fact my parents made all our Christmases so special, and still do.’
She was around 11 when she accepted that Santa wasn’t real – although to this day her parents have never actually said the words ‘he’s not real’ out loud.
The knowledge didn’t spoil the season for her. ‘When I think back to my childhood I’m only filled with warm, magical memories,’ she says.
She gets huge joy from passing that same love to her children, now aged 9, 10, 14 and 16.
Her Christmas countdown begins in early December with letters to Santa. They have advent calendars, and ‘Chocolate Fairies’ leave a little sweet treat for each child every morning. All the children get videos from Santa – even the older two, who happily take part in the fun. ‘I tell them: those who don’t believe don’t receive,’ she reveals.
On Christmas Eve all the kids sleep in one room, so Sharon carefully lays down footprints down the hallway, and a sparkly train on the front lawn where the reindeer have landed. She takes a photo of ‘Santa’ piling presents under the tree, and even leaves a tiny scrap of red fabric on the fireplace, so it looks as if he’s torn his coat going back up the chimney.
Sharon sometimes questions why she makes so much work for herself. ‘But, really, I wouldn’t have it any other way,’ she admits. ‘Kid aren’t kids for long, and all too soon they’re out in the big world. Why not light their road up with some magic along the way?’
So, now you’ve heard all the sides to the argument I’d love to hear your thoughts – should you tell your children Santa isn’t real?
• have you read about the time we made handmade Christmas baubles to send to the grandparents?