A jolly old man with nine flying reindeer will bring presents for all the nice children of the world on Christmas Eve. This ruddy-nosed, snow-bearded figure embodies the magic in which many kids are brought up to believe.
But this globally perpetuated tale may be causing more harm than good. Psychologist Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay argue that this age-old lie could affect a child’s relationship with their parents.
Published in The Lancet Psychiatry, Boyle and McKay’s paper denounced the myth for subjecting children to “abject disappointment when they [eventually find] out that this Christmas magic [is] in fact human based.”
Waiting in line for what feels like an eternity to take a photo with Santa at the mall; pouring your heart out on a sheet of paper to send to a dear old man; and carefully choosing the cookies with the most chocolate chips because you know Santa has a sweet tooth — all while accompanied by an affirming parent — typify childrens’ experiences of Santa Claus.
This facade is bound to build up mountains of anticipation. The researchers point out the repercussions of participating in such an “involved lie.” They question: “if adults have been lying about Santa, even though it has usually been well intentioned, what else is a lie? If Santa isn’t real, are fairies real? Is magic? Is God?”
The issue boils down to how this white lie affects “the trust that exists between child and parent.” The researchers explain, “Children may find out from a third party, or through their parents getting bored of the make-believe and making a mistake.” They continue, “If [adults] are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?”
Why is this myth so widely and conventionally passed from generation to generation? Boyle and McKay attribute this to ‘herd behaviour,’ a tendency to conform to the larger group regardless of the rationality behind collective actions.
They also suggest that this lie may be a form of escapism for adults, allowing them to vicariously re-enter the magical experience of childhood.
To see how this myth had been received by members of U of T, The Varsity asked students to share their experiences when they learned the truth about Ol’ Saint Nick.
Some were unfazed by the revelation:
“I was a little upset but got over it easily. It’s not like my world turned upside down.”
— Roya Shams
Others were clever enough to figure out the mystery on their own:
“I believed in Santa Claus until I was quite old — around the fifth grade. By that point, I was somewhat aware of the possibility that he might not be real [but] I’d never been told so outright, so continued to believe. When my mom decided to break it to me in the summer, I wasn’t very upset and distinctly remember replying, ‘I know.’ (I think my mom was a little surprised by that). This experience definitely did not have any significant impact on my relationship with my parents. As an older child, I understood that my parents had ‘tricked’ me so that I could have fun.”
— Joyce Ho
“One gift I remember from my parents was a Gameboy game I wanted. I remember coming downstairs on Christmas morning and… jokingly checking the stocking and there it was. But I remember then thinking that our fireplace was electric, our tree was plastic, and we didn’t leave the requisite snacks out. And I didn’t confide that I wanted that game with anyone but my parents.”
— Frederick Zhang
And lastly, there are those of us who still hold onto a little magic:
“Despite having my dad break the news to me when I was 9, I still low-key think Rudolph and his pals are the reason I wake up to tiny footprints in the snow outside in my backyard on Christmas morning (even if my mom tells me it’s only the neighborhood raccoons).”
— Evani Patel