Print storySubscribe to the Times

To tell or not to tell, about Santa that is

Last week when her sister and brother weren't around, she asked me if parents really are the ones who buy the presents and not Santa. I told her that was pretty much how it worked. Ugh.

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH, Times Correspondent
Published December 18, 2005

I wrote a column two years ago about how and when parents tell their kids the truth about Santa Claus. I talked with a few parents and a child psychologist who said most kids know by third grade. So this year when my third-grader kept badgering my husband and me in front of her younger siblings about whether Santa was real we decided it was time to tell her the truth.

Last week when her sister and brother weren't around, she asked me if parents really are the ones who buy the presents and not Santa. I told her that was pretty much how it worked.

Ugh.

Why didn't I hold out until after Christmas? She was devastated. Tears streamed down her face. I had no idea that she kept questioning me because she wanted me to keep reassuring her. The next day she asked me if there was medicine you could take to make you forget something you don't want to remember. Apparently I, along with that child psychologist I interviewed, missed the memo from the North Pole. These days parents seem to be waiting longer to tell their kids about Santa.

"They don't want to know," said Diane Bailey McClanathan, mother of 17-year-old and 9-year-old girls. Her oldest, of course, knows that reindeer don't fly around the world in one night. But she has never asked her mom about it. "I think they really want more of a wink and a nod than the blatant truth," she said. "They love the illusion as much as the parents."

To keep up the illusion, she makes a point each year of picking one present that her kids request from Santa then acts as if it may be impossible for him to get it. She tells the girls not to get their hopes up because Santa can't bring everything they want. Then on Christmas morning Santa always comes through. One year he even delivered a snow sled that her youngest daughter had pined for.

"See I told you Santa could," said her beaming daughter, who was 5 at the time.

It seems parents and children who adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy can keep the magic going indefinitely. After drawing the curtain on my own daughter's magical images of Santa, I have asked about 25 parents if their kids know the truth. More than two-thirds with kids ages 6 to 12, and some even older, said they haven't told them.

I can specifically remember riding the bus to school in sixth grade and hearing some kids snicker, then outright tease a girl named Vivien who still believed in Santa. Vivien was what we would now call developmentally delayed. Back then, most everybody else knew by second, third or fourth grade.

But now, while children seem to be going longer without getting the lowdown on Santa, they still learn about saying no to drugs and cigarettes in early elementary years. Some know the tragic details of 9/11. They know of the panicked cell phone calls to say goodbye from airplanes and that people jumped to their deaths from the towers. They are familiar with foreign names like al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

I don't know if this was mentioned in the memo or if most parents are even aware of the irony. But perhaps in an age when kids are exposed to so much more of the darker realities of life, they - or we - are choosing to hang on to at least one simple, magical part of childhood as long as possible. Maybe innocence is winning over truth and disclosure.

I called my parents to lament what I had done. My mother pointed out that it's good to have a little less focus on Santa and reindeer and more on the birth of Christ. Still, they sympathized with my despair over ending the magic of Santa prematurely. They remembered the day my sister and I saw them loading the unwrapped gifts we'd asked Santa for into the car as they packed for my grandmother's house. I recall that same day. I also remember how much fun my sister and I had up until that year listening for, then thinking we heard sleigh bells on our roof in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve.

I decided it's too soon to let that incredible excitement and magic that siblings share at Christmas end for my daughter. So I did some major damage control.

I thought of the great generosity that comes forth in this season and told her that Santa does give presents to children who might not get as much without him, and that parents who can afford it help out by buying the gifts themselves. That helped a little, but she still wished Santa brought her at least one thing.

Okay. Phase 2 of keeping the Christmas magic alive.

"Well, every year there are a few things in your stockings that I have never seen before. We don't buy them for you so I guess Santa brings them," I told her. She beamed.

Phase 3. My husband went to the Internet to find a copy of the famous letter penned in 1897 from a New York newspaper editor to an 8-year-old girl named Virginia who wrote the paper questioning the existence of Santa.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight," Francis P. Church wrote.

"You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. ... Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world."

The letter continued: "No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."

Now my daughter is believing again, or at least we've given her enough props so that she can pretend to believe. As I search my memory of that sixth-grade bus ride to school I remember the bully of the bus, a tall, wiry boy telling everybody who was teasing Vivien to shut up. "You don't know for sure if Santa is real or not so just shut up," he ordered.

He didn't say it as eloquently as Francis P. Church, but the sentiment was the same. Why should anyone have the right to take Santa away form someone who wants to keep the magic and the mystery alive? Not the boys on the bus.

Not even a mother or father.

You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at snowsmith@verizon.net or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. [Last modified December 18, 2005, 18:48:38]