Keeping Santa Alive in the Suburbs

How do you preserve your kids' innocence—and recapture some of your own—when they begin to suspect the guy in the red suit is a big fat lie?

I knew what the fallout on the home front would be when the truth about Santa came out. I’d heard plenty of sob stories from parents who’d slipped down this slope before me—tales of “the end of the magic” and “growing up too soon” and “What in the flipped bird do we do now that there’s no Naughty List to keep them from punching each other?”

There was my high-school pal Beth, whose third-grader got a two-fer in one day, when a classmate told her the truth about both Santa and sex, the latter in painstaking, biologically accurate detail.

A neighbor’s daughter had a substitute teacher in fifth grade who was handing out a writing assignment, which she explained like this: “Just create a fictitious character. You know. Like Santa.” (“There were some dreams crushed that day,” said the mom.)

And it’s been almost 10 years, but my college friend Pam can still barely speak about the fateful moment when her kindergartner walked in the door with the news. She felt like a fraud. (It didn’t exactly help that her five-year-old was shouting, “What else have you lied about? What about the Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy?”) Even though the jig was clearly up, Pam still wanted to get to the bottom of it. “Who told you?” she asked her son. It turned out her son’s classroom Scrooge had six older siblings more than happy to trample the myth.

Pam didn’t care. “I was so angry,” she says.

Now I was angry, fuming about those two seven-year-old boys whose names I now had, thankyouverymuch, and whom I envisioned strutting around the playground at recess the next day, puffed-out and cocky, whispering to the rest of the student body—maybe even to my kindergartner, Blair’s little sister!—about Santa’s throne of lies.

“I must put a stop to this! I’m so going to call their moms!” I announced to my husband, all puffed-out and cocky myself, the way people are while sitting on their couches, spouting to their spouses all the brave and noble things they’re going to do to right some wrong even though they know they don’t actually have the snowballs to pick up the phone. Plus, what would I say?

“Hi, Sammy’s mom? This is Blair’s mom. I thought you should know that Sammy is telling all the kids in second grade that Santa isn’t real, and I think you need to have a talk with him to make sure he understands that he has to stop telling the truth—” Click.

My friend Sandy actually had gotten schooled like that just a few weeks earlier, except it was at a parent/teacher conference … by the teacher. Apparently, Sandy’s kindergartner, Amelia, took the position of The Denier during a Santa debate with her friends at coloring time. A few days later at the conference, the teacher made an odd statement: “So, you’re nonbelievers.”

“Nonbelievers in what?” Sandy asked.

“Nonbelievers in Santa,” the teacher said.

Sandy and her husband burst out laughing. “Well, do you believe in Santa?” Sandy responded, thinking it was all a joke. But the teacher wasn’t kidding. In fact, she explained that Amelia’s bean-spilling on Santa had caused “a disruption in the classroom.”

“Instead of getting into some big philosophical fight about the appropriateness of teaching a pagan myth in a public school, I assured her I’d speak to my daughter about respecting other people’s beliefs,” Sandy explained. “I came home and promptly told my kid she got me in trouble.”

My first reaction upon hearing this story was to thank Baby Jesus that Sandy’s daughter and mine go to different schools. But after that, I just felt bummed. For all of them—for those shocked little kids in the kindergarten class who didn’t even know yet about coloring inside the lines, for that practical, deductive, five-going-on-25 Amelia. Mostly, I felt bad for my friend Sandy. She’s always been a no-B.S. kind of gal. I was sure she felt proud of her daughter for being so savvy. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking: Don’t give it up so fast! But what, exactly, did I think she was giving up, besides the years of psychotherapy the Santa Lie might potentially inflict on her kid?

“I don’t know of any cases of people going to mental institutions because their parents lied to them about Santa,” Temple child psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek assures me. Because I call her. Just to make sure. “It isn’t about ‘what’s real’ and ‘what’s a lie.’ Santa gives us a sense of the possible.”

That’s why we do this. Kids need to believe things are possible. Santa, aside from being the greatest universal deception of all time, teaches the youth of the world to at least consider the possibility: Maybe he is real. Maybe there is magic in their lives.

I needed to get my script ready for what I planned to say when, some night over chicken strips, Blair popped The Question. I asked friends what rationale they’d used when the jingle bell tolled for them. I ended up debating between two options:

“If you believe there is, there is.”

“If you don’t believe, you get undies.”