Spoiler alert: Santa Claus is not real—and your kids will tell you so.
Despite your winks and whispers, your dedication to detail and your years of weaving a seamless Santa Claus mythology, this much is certain: one pull on your narrative thread by some know-it-all fourth-grader can—and likely will—unravel the whole thing.
Short of keeping your family in a snow globe all year, there’s no preventing the grinches and humbugs out there that can dim the magic of Christmas for your child. How do you prepare for such news? Can you soften the blow? Is it better not to build Santa’s story so much in the first place?
Here are some thoughts from parents who have been there—or at least are heading down that well-trodden path.
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Dana—3-year-old son, 8-month-old son
“My dad had some jingle bells, and he ran outside and jingled them all around the house. My parents didn’t go all-out on any of this stuff, but the moments I really remember are the things that made it imaginative and real. Now, I’m all about creating the moments that make him believe.”
Patty—8-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter
“Having immigrant parents and being a first-generation American, Santa wasn’t part of my childhood. Christmas was about gathering with family and giving gifts. As I grew older, I realized I missed the magic of Christmas. I’m watching movies like A Christmas Story and Home Alone, and I’m like, wow! This is so different from what I grew up with, and I really wanted to play that up with my kids. My husband grew up believing in Santa as well, and he thinks this makes it so much more fun, and so much more magical. So that’s why we’re so set that this is what we’re going to do.”
Pamela—3-year-old son, 8-month-old daughter
“I did it for potty training last year. ‘If you poop on the potty every day, Santa will bring you a scooter for Christmas.’ Eventually, he got it, but I waited for Christmas for the scooter.”
Kimberly—4-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter
“I didn’t think we would introduce Santa at all because my parents didn’t. I remember my parents used to save money and buy the nicest Christmas gifts. My dad said, ‘I work too hard for some fat, jolly white man to take all the credit.’ I have some of that in me, too. We work hard every day, and I want my kids to know this is a blessing, a gift. It’s not magic, and it’s not an entitlement.
“We started with letters to Santa—that’s always fun. That’s more so we know how to be Santa and what they want for Christmas. Also, we started out right as newborns bringing them out to see Santa and get pictures with Santa. We set out carrots for the reindeer and cookies for Santa. That’s fun because we bake cookies together. When we had our first house, we had a fireplace on the first floor. We would take my husband’s boots and make footprints on the carpet from the fireplace leading up to the tree. We wanted to make it all more believable, magical and fun. That really took off. Now, my kids are looking for the footprints every year.”
Daphne—11-year-old son, 8-year-old son
“When I grew up, all the presents under the tree that were wrapped were from our parents or each other, and then Santa would leave one present under the tree unwrapped but with a big bow on it. Santa is pulling things out of the bag and doesn’t have time to wrap. And you knew it was your present from Santa because it was what you asked him for. Santa brings the showstopper. We’ll get credit later. We do have a rule that Santa can’t bring live things. There’s no room in the bag to breathe, and they would be out in the cold all night. That started when they wanted puppies one year.”
“Santa brings a gift. It’s the one they tell Santa they want when he asks, and we try to make that happen. In their Santa letters, they list three to five presents in order of what they want, and I’ll share that with the family or whoever wants ideas. They’re all about presents right now. My son asked for an iPhone. I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t think Santa gives electronics.’”
“Most gifts are from Mom and Dad. I did say last year that Santa brought you this gift because you were a good boy. I’m using it to reinforce behavior—not necessarily that I believe in this character.”
“We introduced Santa as a way to keep my son from continually asking me for stuff. I told him he needed to wait until Christmas for that, and you have to be a good boy all year for him to bring that. So I don’t know about you, but I’m using it as blackmail.”
“We do call Santa and tell him when good things happen, and my son is listening to everything I say. We did get out of seeing the baseball game on a really hot day because we said Santa needed us to feed the reindeer that night instead of the ball game. We have an elk enclosure nearby—you know, reindeer—but then the buffalo were there instead of the reindeer. So, we had to call Santa again and continue this elaborate web of lies. We told him Santa had to pick up the reindeer early and help them work out because Christmas was coming.”
“We started The Elf on the Shelf last year. My son named him Alf. But he does not like Alf. I think it was too early for him. I’m so excited about everything that I think I’m doing it all too early. If he was napping, I put him in Theo’s room while he was sleeping, and I spelled out Theo’s name in M&Ms. I could see on the monitor when he woke up, and I think he felt violated. He saw it, and he just crumbled to the floor. We had to put Alf away. I kind of hope he doesn’t remember any of it.”
“We don’t do the elf thing because, for me, that is a lot of work. But I know that other kids at school talk with my kids about the magical elf in the house watching them. My daughter’s so intrigued by it that last year, she nearly asked Santa for one. I’m glad she didn’t.”
“It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s so fun. My sister and I will share ideas for what to do. But my oldest son was questioning whether the elf was real. Two years ago, we were in line to see Santa, and Santa always asks them their names. So, my youngest son says his name, but he said it really quietly. It’s an uncommon name and Santa heard ‘Jacob,’ which is our elf’s name. He said, ‘Ah, Jacob!’ My oldest son is shocked, and I just nodded and said, ‘Well, he associates Jacob with you guys, and Jacob must be telling Santa a lot of stories because every night Jacob flies home.’ And my son says, ‘Well, he is the real Santa because he knows Jacob.’ It saved my life. It was amazing.”
“Elf on the Shelf wasn’t a thing when I was growing up, and we don’t do it. It’s kind of creepy, and it’s more work for you as a mom, as if we don’t have enough work to do. You’re telling your kid that this elf is watching you, and also Santa is watching you and Jesus is watching you…it’s just too much pressure on them.”
“I remember how it went for me, and I don’t want it to be like that. I had figured out Santa wasn’t real when I was with my mom shopping. I had put it all together, and it was a domino effect of all the guys. The Easter Bunny’s not real, the Tooth Fairy’s not real. Once you know one is down, they all go down. And it was a rough run to the store. No slushie can make up for that.”
“My sister told my nephew over the summer. He’s in sixth grade, and he really didn’t know. He believed Elf on the Shelf. He believed everything. She was afraid because he was in middle school that he was going to be made fun of, so she decided it had gone too far. He was devastated. It was a downpour of tears, but he did come around. My sister drives 200 miles to Des Moines to see Santa because that’s where they started going. This is also why her sixth-grader had issues. They committed too hard. So I decided I’m never telling mine. I’m just going to deny it until the end.”
“My daughter came home from school. ‘My friends said that Santa’s not real.’ And she was only 5. At first, I was kind of upset, but then I asked, ‘Well, what do you think?’ She said, ‘Well, of course he’s real! He makes a mess in our house! Who else would make a mess in our house?’ So I left it like that. I can tell my son is thinking about it because he’s questioning the Tooth Fairy. I’m just waiting, and this is probably the year he’s going to be asking. I’m just going to ask him questions and see his logic. ‘Do you really believe Santa comes down the fireplace, and he rides around with his reindeer?’ I’ll see how it goes. And then I’ll probably just tell him the truth.”
“I do worry about my son telling people at school. I don’t want him to ruin it for somebody else. But you don’t need to approach it as a secret. You just explain that some people believe in different things. There are certain things we do in our house that other people may not do in theirs, and you respect that. Santa is one of those things. He understands that.”
“That’s the thing I worry about. I remember how I felt when somebody told me, ‘There’s no Santa. It’s your parents.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about “it’s your parents”? What does that mean?’ I was in the third grade. And I feel like that’s really old now to still believe in Santa. I don’t think kids can be as innocent anymore.”
“We are taught Jesus is the reason for the season, and I think that’s big in the African-American community. Yes, Santa is a big part of the secular celebration of Christmas, but your true meaning of Christmas is Jesus’ birth. That’s what I teach my kids. I don’t think my parents ever put a stake in the ground and said ‘we don’t believe in Santa.’ I just knew what my parents believed in, and that’s what they taught me. My dad said, ‘We buy you these gifts because Mom and Dad love you, and we appreciate you being good kids who listen to your parents, and we are celebrating Jesus’ birth in one way by celebrating you.’ I’ve always felt that, and I never felt like, ‘Ooh, there isn’t a Santa, and I need to go to school and tell people they shouldn’t believe in it, either.’”
“There is something about the magic and the wonder of Christmas that makes it exciting when you’re a kid. I remember loving the book The Polar Express, even though I grew up in the church and know that Jesus is the reason we celebrate. I don’t talk about Santa that much because I feel like it’s confusing. When I was growing up, I asked my parents, ‘Well, that Santa at the mall is white but then this other Santa is black,’ and they said, ‘Well, Santa just changes race for whoever’s house he’s at.’ I believed it at the time. I want my son to see more positive black role models. He’s already around so many white people, and here’s another white person, and he’s going to sit on his lap and tell him what he wants.”
“I’m still going to do what we do as our own traditions, whether he believes in Santa or not. My hope is that what we are doing will show him that there’s more joy in giving and being a helper and passing along the magic. I’m hoping he will be part of a club that keeps Santa alive.”
“I don’t want to keep telling him Santa is real if people around him are telling him Santa isn’t real. I want him to come to his own conclusions. But I think we all would prefer to believe because it’s way more fun. I want to plant the seeds to make him want to keep believing.”
“The way it was reconciled with me is that Santa is looking for the Baby Jesus and doesn’t know where he is, so he gives gifts to all the kids.”
“I think this will be the year it all goes down the tubes. I’m just going to deny the whole thing. Seriously. ‘Sorry, but you’re totally wrong.’ We need to figure it out. I’ve seen a poem parents can read about breaking the news to kids. I may read that to my son. Kids believe in Santa a lot longer these days. I think nowadays, people want their kids to stay innocent longer. I feel like people are working to preserve it longer.”
“Our goal with Christmas is making it fun and magical. We’re lying to them about Santa, but it’s a lie that’s harmless. I’m hoping it’s harmless! I hope they are not totally disappointed when they find out it’s us.”
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do Santa. There’s no perfect solution. It’s about what works for your family.”