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The Psychology of Santa Claus

• December 19, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: LARSJUH/FLICKR)

It’s weird, isn’t it? Parents lie to their kids about a mysterious, bearded gift-giver, only to set them up for inevitable heartbreak. Except, it’s not so simple.

Kids were always runny-nosed, shrieking that they didn’t want to meet the man in red. Idiots, I thought, stepping over writhing toddlers being corralled by elf helpers, why would anyone not talk to Santa? I requested a My Size Barbie and left satisfied.

My relationship with Santa Claus was always pragmatic. I believed in his existence with an almost surgical approach—tracking his movements broadcasted on the local news, noting that all his gifts came in a different, much fancier wrapping paper, checking for lip marks on the empty glass of milk. Polls show that 84 percent of American adults believed in Santa when they were children—children who, when prompted, say with a straight face that Santa is just as real as Michael Jordan. Santa was much realer to me than Michael Jordan, who never once gave me a present. Santa was the coolest guy on the planet.

With the destruction of Santa came the destruction of Christmas, and the end of Christmas meant the world was ending with it.

In second grade I asked my mom how Santa could make so many public appearances on such a tight schedule. Not every Santa was the actual Santa, she said, they were just guys that the real Santa asked to help him out. How logical, I thought, Santa is a busy man.

That’s the sort of loving lie parents tell their kids about Santa. It’s a pretty easy lie to tell. An ingrained part of our culture, talking to kids about Santa feels, if you think about it, weirdly normal. Letting children use their imaginations to conjure this image is healthy, psychologists argue, saying that the practice is what will later help them dream up inventions and other big ideas. Similarly, fairy tales have been shown to be an effective and more meaningful way to teach children morals; the naughty-or-nice list becomes a guide to growing up to be a decent person. Even if your goodness is derived from a fear of not receiving a Furby.

Yet, about 54 percent of children, myself included, find out the truth from someone who’s not a parent. About three weeks before Christmas, a fellow eight-year-old told me the deal. I laughed him off. No Santa? You’re crazy. If Santa wasn’t real, then how could there be carrot leftovers at the bottom of our chimney that he clearly threw back down after bringing them up to the roof to feed his reindeer? The same carrots I carefully laid out alongside some Nutri-Grain bars because my grandpa said Santa was trying to be a little healthier that year.

While not enough to break my resolve, he had planted a seed of doubt. Before school the next morning, I asked my mom the hefty question, stopping her before we got in the car. She walked over, sat me down, and gave the sweetest reply: “Santa was once a real person, and now we honor him by giving thoughtful gifts to the people we love most. He’s a feeling in our hearts.” Yeah I know, I thought, Santa is a feeling in my heart and also an elderly obese man who writes me back every Christmas. Seeing that I clearly wasn’t getting it, she took a breath and said, “But no, Santa is not real.”

Then I lost it.

It began much like Megyn Kelly’s reaction to the idea that Santa be replaced with a penguin. A bewildered and adamant “No … nooo!” that built into sobs. School was going to have to wait.

“Kids up to four, five, six, seven live in what we call fantasy life magic years,” pediatrics professor Benajamin Siegel told PBS. I suppose my Santa breakdown came from the idea that my fantasy life magic years were over; with the destruction of Santa came the destruction of Christmas, and the end of Christmas meant the world was ending with it. Did we have to take down the tree, now that the ruse was up? What about our Griswold-status lights? I saw my holiday wonderland crumble around me.

Parents continue with the Claus con, according to professor at Illinois State University, in order to ensure their children’s parental dependency and to preserve their innocence. However, studies show that parents are often much sadder than their children when the truth comes out. I have a hard time believing this because I had to lie underneath our Christmas tree for half-an-hour until I calmed down. I had been revising my list since June. All that work, lost.

When I emerged from beneath the pine, I approached my mom with one essential question—was the Tooth Fairy real? Looking apprehensively at my mucous-stained face, she slowly asked, “Do you really want to know?”

The answer was simple.

“Nope.”

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

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