The Santa Survey is available at www.thesantasurvey.com

The distress caused by the Coronavirus pandemic means parents should maintain the “vital tonic” of the Father Christmas myth for children this year, psychologist urges

-       Don’t let children catch you putting the presents out this Christmas

-       International survey of over 4000 adults discloses the ways they learned the truth about Santa – and many found out after clumsy parents tripped up on Christmas Eve 

-       Parents should have a strategy for when children ask them the vital question

Parents agonise about how to handle difficult questions about Father Christmas when children grow up, but the coronavirus pandemic means it could be damaging to be totally honest this year. It is better to keep the magic alive, at least for 2020, a leading psychologist has advised. 

Dr Chris Boyle, from the University of Exeter, is an expert on children’s experiences of Christmas magic and myth, and the impact on their lives as adults when they discover the truth. His Santa Survey has been completed by over 4,200 people around the world. 

Dr Boyle’s usual advice for parents and guardians is that it can be psychologically harmful to lie to children, especially when it comes to the Santa myth. But, compounding the events of 2020 with the knowledge that Santa is not real could be even more stressful for some children, he says in an article in the journal The Psychologist. He has called on families to “maintain the collective myth” for one more year. 

Dr Boyle said: “The Covid Christmas of 2020 brings so much uncertainty and misery, there is an argument it has never been a greater time to indulge in the escapism of Santa. Christmas is a time of magic, where children believe in implausible things, including Santa - adults, and older children, wish they could believe too. Who can blame them, especially in 2020? 

“My survey results reveal there are many ways where parents can expose the Santa myth by mistake.  The main slip-up beset by parents is being caught in the act” 

Some examples of parent’s errors contributed by people who completed the survey include: 

  • ‘Dad was tipsy when setting out the presents and disturbed my sleep, so I heard him drop them’ (Age 11, England),  
  • ‘I caught my parents drinking and eating what we had put out for Santa and the reindeer’ (Age 10, England).  
  • ‘I saw my mother kissing Father Christmas under his beard’  

Many children also had an obsession with how Santa entered the house. Parent’s inabilities to answer these questions successfully led to children discovering the truth about Santa: 

  • ‘I knew it was impossible for such a fat man to fit down the chimney’ (Age 7, USA). 
  • ‘Grandpa’s house had a fireplace. It was turned on and when I woke up, the presents were there but no dead Santa’ (Age 3, Germany). 

Dr Boyle said: “My research focusses on the journey children embark on when they are beginning to question the truth about Santa. But the survey results give me hope that parents could successfully navigate questions about Santa this year if they are aware of the main ways that other parents have tripped up over the years, then we can all maintain the collective myth that is Santa Claus for one more season.

“The challenges we have faced this year will surely live with many children over their lifetimes. With all the magic and hope that he brings, Father Christmas might be a vital tonic for the Grinch that was 2020. What worse horror than to bookend an already troubled year with the disclosure that Santa is not real?”  

“The Santa Survey results show how hard it is for parents and guardians to keep the magic and myths of Christmas going as children become older. The Father Christmas story becomes much more difficult to perpetrate, particularly when children learn more about science and develop problem-solving skills.”  

People’s experiences, shared with Dr Boyle, shows the tale becomes more about ‘a leap of faith’, not too dissimilar to that of religious belief. Some children realise that if they let on that they know the truth about Santa then it might reduce the quality of the experience for them and their siblings.   

The survey shows many children are more alert, attentive and vigilant than most parents assume. They notice when their gifts from Father Christmas are from recognisable shops, when someone has tried to disguise handwriting on labels, and when gifts hidden around the house end up in stockings. Many start questioning how Father Christmas could get into their house if they don’t have a fireplace, and how he covers the globe in a single night. 

Dr Boyle’s advice for parents and guardians is to think carefully, ahead of time, about what they will do should their children confront them about Santa.  

He said: “They should have a strategy, whether this is continuing as usual, or dismissing concerns and saying Father Christmas does exist. In usual years when events are more normal, they should be mindful explaining to a child that they are correct, and that Santa does not exist; this could prevent shame and embarrassment for a child when they do finally discover the truth. Parents need to understand the potential trauma they could cause when they choose to perpetrate a lie.” 

The Santa Survey is available at www.thesantasurvey.com

Date: 1 December 2020

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