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How to Deliver the Santa Magic Without the Lying


The character of Santa playfully embodies so much of the Christmas spirit and taps perfectly into a child’s developmental world of imagination. And yet, trust is at the core of gentle parenting, which means I do not lie to my children—ever.

Is it really a lie?

Did you state something as fact that you actually knew was not accurate? To your child who implicitly trusted you? While manipulating things in their environment to support their continued belief? Ya, that’s definitely lying.

So we choose to embrace the legend of Santa without lying to our children. 

“Say whaaaaat? Santa’s real!?”

Not exactly. I have actually found that the language of our freethinking parenting philosophy lends itself perfectly to Santa’s inclusion in our holiday fun. Our children are inundated with Santa Myth through television, books, friends, family, stores, etc. He’s inescapable, in a jolly kind of way.

When these exposures and interactions stir our children’s curiosity, they come to us with questions just like they do with all areas of natural learning from plants to planets. Language is powerful—so much so that it actually creates our realities. We choose a reality in which wonder has room to play and your people are trustworthy. 

How should I answer my kids’ Santa questions?

When they ask us questions, we preface our answers with things like, “The legend says that . . .,” or “Many people believe . . .,” or “I like to imagine . . .”

We then encourage them to seek their own answers with questions like, “What do you think?” or “What do you believe?” or “How do you imagine that happens?” 

Should I use Christmas characters as a threat to elicit good behavior?

Since our children are not being raised in a paradigm of obedience to authority and behavior modification with rewards and punishments, the mechanism of Santa as a threat to manipulate their behavior obviously does not resonate with them or us.

“If I cry, will Santa not bring me presents on Christmas?”

“You will get presents every Christmas because gifts are a joy to give and receive. You know that all feelings are welcome in our family and our home will always be a safe space for us to cry.”

Speaking of home being a safe space, Santa’s spy Elf on a Shelf is creepy AF guys. I know some wonderful families who invite a little elf into their homes to create mischief for the children to discover each morning—lovely. Telling your kids there’s a little man who sneaks into the house to watch them while they sleep and report back for their behavior to be judged . . . just no. 

Does it really do any harm to make them sit on Santa’s lap for a picture?

We also need to have a serious talk about Santa pictures. As with all traditions, “because it’s been done for a long time” is not a good enough reason to do anything that goes against your child’s best interests. (Listen to episode 38 of the Sage Family Podcast on Simple Holidays for some thoughtful holiday traditions.) If some random stranger in the middle of a chaotic mall asked to hold your terrified baby, would you cleave them off your chest and place them in his custody while they scream in terror? Of course not.What does that teach them about their ownership of their body? Does that enhance the trust between you or violate it? To top it all off, you take a photo and share it publicly and everyone has a good laugh at their trauma. Maybe take a pause and allow your child to guide the Santa interaction experience. 

We were at the mall shopping when West was 2 and he caught a glimpse of all the Christmas cheery cheeries so he asked if we could go check it all out. As we approached, he saw Santa and asked if he could talk to him (he saw another child sitting in his lap). 

Mama: “Do you want to sit on his lap while you talk to him?”

West: “No. I want to walk and you can hold my hand.”

Mama: “Okay. Santa, West would like to talk with you.”

Santa: “Come and sit on my lap little boy!”

Mama: “He would like to talk to you right here.”

Santa: “Okay, what would you like for Christmas?”

West: “Chocolate!”

Santa: “Good choice West. Here is a candy cane for you.”

West: “Thank you!”

We walked away hand-in-hand and he felt respected, proud, and touched by the magic of Christmas.

When should they stop believing in Santa?

Many people wonder when that magic of Christmas “should” wane? At what age is it no longer “right” to believe in Santa? The truth is that as with almost all aspects of parenting, there is no “should” or “right,” there is only your specific child on their unique developmental journey. The most important piece of a child’s evolution through the Santa myth is that it unfolds naturally. Your child will see evidence in the world around them and over time that evidence will paint a picture. If you have never lied to your child, there will be a clear path down which they can walk and with trust intact, they will hold your hand as they walk it. 

How to explain the full truth of Santa when they are ready.

When confronted with the difficult questions of a child transitioning through the Santa myth, many a parent has thrown down, “Santa brings a gift to those who believe in him.” It sounds nice enough. My concern with this approach is that it puts up a wall between you that discourages honest and open communication about something that could be deep for your child while also encouraging intentional ignorance. If my child is experiencing big uncomfortable wonderings (cognitive dissonance: confronted with new information that challenges previously held beliefs), I want them to bravely and openly embrace that process of accommodation. You see, I don’t ever want my child to be afraid to learn. 

My children all got to a point where they point blank asked me, “Is Santa real?” I responded, “If you ask me a question, I will always tell you the truth. I also know that Santa is fun to believe in. It feels magical and spurs your imagination. Do you want me to answer that question?” 

When my eldest, who is relentlessly inquisitive and always wants to know everything about everything asked, she immediately replied with a staunch, “Yes!” 

When my second asked, he thoughtfully paused and walked away changing the subject. The following year he asked again and was ready to hear the answer. 

“Do you believe in Santa?”

“The magic of Christmas is so fun to believe in that I love to think about the legend of Santa and imagine it in my mind. Do I believe that he puts presents under the tree? No, because as a parent, now I get to create the magic of Christmas for my children.”

“I like that.”

My third stated, “I know Santa doesn’t really bring these presents,” and I responded, “But it sure is fun to pretend, isn’t it?”

With all of my children, after they hit a point of logic that could not be overcome with their imagination alone, we looked into the origins of the Santa myth (this article is an interesting read: The Real Story Behind Santa Claus) and the Christmas holiday and walked away on a very positive note thinking about continuing the legacy of the spirit of giving and the celebration of the winter season (you can read about how we celebrate winter solstice here). The magic doesn’t die, it transitions from literal to figurative—it takes a new form.

Will belief in Santa undermine belief in God? 

Mythical figures are usually a child’s first experience rationalizing their way through an inherited belief. Think about it: we tell our children that an old man with mystical powers is always watching and judging from above and expect that they’ll eventually figure out that it’s not real—that the stories are metaphors to inspire values that we hold dear. 

I’m not suggesting that if you believe in a literal interpretation of religion and hope to impart the same belief system within your child that you should not allow for the magic of Christmas, but I would be remiss if I were to write about the development of belief and not include the parallel. 

Should I ask my kids to keep the Santa secret for other children? 

Secret keeping is a slippery business that we don’t patron. Remember when I said that we don’t lie to our children? That calibrates their integrity for honesty across the board. No matter how well intentioned, I am not going to encourage my child to lie to those they care about in order to avoid uncomfortable conversations. The ramifications of setting that precedent are dangerous (let’s not do sexual predators any favors).

It is okay for people in community with each other to hold different beliefs. A Christian can be friends with a Jew and a Muslim and an atheist who all hold different beliefs that they each believe to be the singular, sacred truth. That is diversity and we are better for it. That is the lens through which we handle conversations around Santa.

“You don’t believe in Santa? But he’s real!”

“It’s okay for us to have different beliefs. It’s actually wonderful how we can all hold different beliefs and still be friends. Diversity makes the world better.”

Like building fairy houses in your garden or reading imaginative stories at bedtime, you can embrace the fanciful spirit of Christmas and its playful traditions without stepping out of alignment with your parenting values and damaging the delicate trust that exists within a secure connection.

Hang stockings if you like. Read books about a jolly man in a white beard flying through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer if it tickles your fancy. Feel free to sing carols and tie packages with bows and eat all the frosted holiday cookies. Just hold that trust sacred while you do it. 

  1. Beth says:

    Thak you, this question has been laying heavy on my heart for the last month and I’m so glad I found this. I have a one and two year old (who is finally very excited about Christmas) and I’ve been wondering if we will act like Santa is real or not. I remember learning Santa wasn’t real and it absolutely ruined Christmas. Being a preteen/teenager at Christmas felt like such a let down compared to the magic of believing Santa was real. Not until recently having small children has it felt magical for me too. I want to have traditions and holiday fun and memories that make Christmas special without having a moment that redefines it or ruins it. It’s fun to still watch Santa movies but to treat him like a fun holiday traction and not like he’s real. My husband was so trusting of his parents as a kid and believed in Santa probably a little longer than he should have because she had someone dress as Santa and come to their house, convincing their kids he really was real. He still to this day vividly remembers that it was the first moment he realized his parents would lie to him and go to such great lengths to do it. I just think there is a way to have Christmas be very meaningful and special without creating this facade.

    • Thank you for sharing your and your husband’s experiences. There is so much wisdom to be gained from reflecting on our own childhood experiences. And yes, I agree, you can absolutely have the magic, without the lying.

  2. Julia says:

    I absolutely love this! Thank you so much! My husband and I have had a hard time deciding which way to lean when it comes to Santa. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on leaving out cookies or saying things like “I wonder if Santa came this year?” to spark excitement and wonder? Is there a way to go about this that you have found helpful? Thanks!!

    • We always leave out peanut butter balls and ice milk (one of our traditions is to make peanut butter balls together) and I drink my milk with ice. I make a big show of saying that one of my favorite parts of the Santa story is leaving out cookies and milk, which also happen to be my favorite sweet treats . . . 😉 Again, still all the fun and magic but they’re also in on the fun.

  3. Meagon says:

    Thank you for writing this. We just recently welcomed our first child into this world and I’ve been struggling with whether to allow them to believe in Santa or not. My husband has been telling me there’s no harm in it, but I haven’t been able to get over the feeling of lying to them. Then I feel guilty for potentially taking away some magic from their life. I appreciate your honest and open approach. It has eased my anxiety and I’m now looking forward to the holiday season. Thank you again, from a first time mom.

  4. Alicia says:

    The Santa aspect of Christmas was something I struggled with for my first several years as a parent. It didn’t feel right to lie to my kids, but I also didn’t know what else to do differently. I wanted things to be magical! Last year, I finally just started talking about Santa as a story and answering their questions about him as a story that people like to tell that helps us remember to think of others and show kindness for those around us. We decided that we would be “Secret Santas” and look for ways that we could be like Santa for others in our community and family. Once we took that approach, the magic of Christmas was everything I wanted and so much more! Now they were feeling love for others and doing something positive instead of focusing on their own wish lists. And I love that focusing on Santa as a story allows me the space to remain truthful to the religious focus of Christmas that I hold dear to my heart and want my children to understand as real and true. Thank you for sharing your perspective and for all the work you do in your blog and podcasts!

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I work from an island in the Pacific Northwest, where I live wild and free in connection with my hilarious husband and three growing sailors in our fixer upper on the beach. I authentically live this healing work out loud raising my own neurodivergent family (inner child included) and draw on my decades of education and experience (I've done all the nerdy work so you don't have to) to guide a revolution of overwhelmed parents just like you to feeling at peace within yourself, consciously connected with your children, embraced by a supportive community, and enjoying a values-aligned life you love.

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