Most parents will face this question sooner or later: “Is Santa real?”
So, what do you say? How do you respond to a starry-eyed, innocent child who derives such genuine joy and wonder from picturing Santa Claus bringing them gifts each Christmas? How do you cover up and rationalize the years of deceit you’ve fed them? How do you shatter one of the few beautiful fantasies your child has? How do you kill off Santa Claus in your child’s life?
I know this moment is coming for me. My 8-year-old son has been sniffing around for a couple years now with more thoughtful questions than ever before. “Is Santa rich? The elves can’t make all the toys, so he must buy a lot of them. How did he get all that money?” “Why [x 1,000]?” “How [x 1,000]?” It’s becoming harder and harder to provide reasonable answers that pass his logic test. I’ve found myself resorting to, “nobody really knows” more often.
A couple of years ago, I saw what I thought was the most brilliant approach to transition a child from the heart-warming belief in Santa, to a beautiful understanding of reality. I’ll do my best to explain the concept.
As your child reaches the point in which you believe you can no longer pull the wool over their eyes, take them out to a serious and private meeting (over lunch, ice cream, etc). Treat the meeting with a very cloak and dagger style of secrecy and importance. Start off by saying something to the effect of, “you’ve grown a lot this year, not only in height, but I can see your heart has grown, as well.” Make mention of some of the good deeds your child has done, to serve as an example to highlight their caring.
Continue with, “we think you may be ready to become a Santa. You may have noticed that when we go visit Santa at the mall, that it’s a person wearing a fake beard or a costume. Maybe you’ve even had some friends tell you Santa isn’t real – but they’re not ready to become Santas, yet. You are.”
Ask your child what you think Santa gets for all the work he puts in. You’ll likely hear “cookies and milk,” but you’ll want to guide the conversation toward the good feelings you get for helping somebody, for making somebody happy, and for doing something good for somebody else.
Now you really get covert. Explain that you’d like to give them their first assignment to see if they’re ready to be a Santa. The mission is to pick out somebody they know (usually a neighbor or a friend), and to do something nice for them without them knowing. The secrecy is of the utmost importance. The child has to think of something that person needs (or would like) and together you can work to provide it.
In the example I saw, the child decided to get a pair of slippers for a cranky neighbor who would come out to get her newspaper each day, barefoot. The child had to decide what size to get, and what style. They then purchased slippers, wrapped them, and left them on the porch to be discovered. They watched closely as the package was taken inside. The family watched closely the following day, as the neighbor emerged from her home, as usual. She was wearing the slippers! They took that moment to focus on the feeling the child had after seeing the fruits of their labor.
To me, this method feels like the humane way to preserve the concept of Santa and the spirit of giving during Christmas, without feeling like you’re killing off Santa.