Santa and Kids: Balancing Imagination with Reality

My husband and I are probably in the minority of parents who don’t do Santa with our three-year-old. It’s not like we hold strong opinions about Santa; it’s just not something we mention. Sure, if we see Santa at the Christmas tree patch, we’ll say that that’s Santa, or when our kiddo asks about our neighbor’s Santa figurine, we’ll honestly say that it’s Santa. But as far as creating a story of Santa coming to our home on Christmas Eve, leaving him cookies and milk or presenting our son with toys that came from the big red guy, we haven’t done much of that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in its magic.

Santa and kids: balancing imagination with realityThis may seem strange coming from someone who grew up not only with Santa but with the Three Kings who kindly stopped by our house on New Year’s Eve and left money in our shoes as well as the Tooth Fairy who did the same in exchange for teeth under pillows. I watched all the Christmas movies and faithfully wrote to Santa, knowing—just knowing—that my letter would be whisked from my desk up to the north pole a lá Santa Claus The Movie. I truly believed all that.

Neither was I traumatized  when I gradually started putting the pieces together. When I found it odd that the toys resembled the same ones found in the stores. Or when my parents shushed my older brother as he teased about Santa. No, I just grew up and was grateful that I got that extra gift and realized that Santa was part of a childhood I was outgrowing.

And maybe it’s too early to decide on this whole Santa business, considering that my kid hasn’t asked any questions about him just yet. He isn’t holding playground conversations with friends about their Santa loot or whether they took pictures with him or not.

Yet I still don’t feel compelled to celebrate Santa in the typical way. I don’t give him the extra gift from Santa, or even explain the history of this white-bearded jolly man. Instead, I’ll do what seems to work best with my kid: follow his lead.

Because even though I’m not one to line up at the mall for Santa pictures or purchase that extra gift, I honor the magic—the imagination—that stems from Santa.

I liken Santa to anything else that my kid would want to create for himself. Just today, he balled up some pieces of play doh and declared that they were pancakes—delicious ones, too, according to him. He has also lined up geometric shapes in a line and ran a plastic chicken over them, claiming that this was a train running on train tracks. Or played with marbles, all the while saying that they were fountains.

His imagination is growing wild, and I’m not one to correct him and say that no, that’s play doh that can’t even be eaten, that those are actually shapes not train tracks, and that marbles are solid and aren’t anything close to water.

Instead I play along. I ask questions. And I let him imagine. Perhaps when the Santa conversation actually comes to fruition, I may do the same. Kids are at that great age where curiosity abounds and they are absorbing everything about their worlds, discerning what makes sense and what doesn’t. And so I’ll leave it up to him to determine what’s real, from Santa to pancakes, from what could be to what is.

After all, when Harry Potter meets Professor Dumbledore at King’s Cross (in the The Deathly Hallows), in what is supposed to have been an afterlife of sorts, he asks, “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” To which Dumbledore wisely replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

What is your take on Santa? How do you answer your kids’ questions regarding Santa?

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Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. She blogs about parenting at Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes everything she's learning about being mom and all its joys and challenges. She also covers topics like how kids learn and play, family life, being a working mom and life with twins. Download her free ebook, "Time Management Strategies for the Overwhelmed Mom" for more tips.


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  1. says

    Very interesting questions! Funny, I haven’t really thought about it that much. Christmas is about the magic, and we LOVE creating it. Is it about Santa, no, but Santa will leave the majority of the presents under the tree. We only give one present from us, the rest are from Santa. The majority of Christmas is about the rituals, plum pudding, cookies, leaving carrots for the reindeer. Just really fun.

  2. says

    I think it would difficult to follow a child’s lead on this. Either we develop these stories and myths and pass them off as truth until they are too old to believe, or we don’t.

  3. says

    Nina, I’m with you! Emma knows about Santa as a fictional, imaginary character. She knows of Santa as someone she knows dressed up in red and asking her silly questions :-). I followed her lead as well and decided to do it this way after we went to a show and she was scared witless by “the big bad witch.” I had to explain that she was just a woman playing at being bad. That also led to explanations about Santa being a man playing at being good. She is happy enough with these explanations.

  4. Steph says

    Our three-year old loves to pretend and imagine. But she also wants to know what’s real or pretend. The other day she asked us if God was real or pretend. Followed up by several fictional characters such as Santa, Peter Pan, etc. Then she asked if the baby (I’m pregnant) is real. It was very interesting having such a philosophical conversation with her at three. Since we do believe in God and she’s so curious, I’d have a hard time telling her both God and Santa were real. I know for some kids, it’s no big deal. But for our constantly questioning kid, we approach Santa as a fun character in movies, books, etc. Now we just have to find a way to keep her from ruining it for some other kid…
    Steph recently posted..Bring on the 8-track Tapes:The Ghost of Christmas PastMy Profile

  5. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says

    I remember finding our letters to Santa in the laundry room. I will tell you it was traumatizing. It was a loss of innocence that I’ll never forget.
    Teresa Cleveland Wendel recently posted..Party AnimalMy Profile

  6. says

    I would just take your little one’s lead as you are doing now. My oldest didn’t get into Santa and The Elf on the Shelf until last year as he was turning 5. We don’t visit Santa at the mall either. Funny, we were in NYC this weekend and all the young college age kids had “SantaCon” (they dress up as Santa and bar hop) and as we passed some of them up, my two little ones would yell, “THAT’s NOT SANTA!!!” Hahaha!
    Keep up the amazing work! xoxo
    Betty recently posted..To Quoute the Famous…#3My Profile

  7. says

    We don’t do Santa either. It’s actually interesting; our kids have actually asked us if we are Santa Clause and we have said yes, then they accept that, but I hear them playing at Santa being real, too. I think the line between reality and fiction is frequently blurry for young children.
    maryanne @ mama smiles recently posted..Learning About StarsMy Profile

  8. Rashida says

    Fantastic post Nina! I used to believe in Santa Claus as a child though we don’t celebrate Christmas but every Christmas eve inspired by movies like Miracle on 34th Street, I used to listen for the sound of sleigh bells! This all used to happen inside my head and who’s not to say it’s not real? I’m also going to encourage my bub’s imagination, show him Santa and then let him decide for himself. Loved it!
    Rashida recently posted..Children Learn What They LiveMy Profile

    • says

      Rashida I think I was the same. My parents “did Santa” by buying us an extra gift, but other than that, they didn’t really perpetuate any stories about sleigh rides or reindeer, but watching all those Christmas movies had me believing big time!
      Nina recently posted..The vulnerability of parenthoodMy Profile

  9. Fay says

    With the age gap between my two Children I have the chance to raise the second having run the full Santa experience with the first.
    Amy stopped believing in Santa about age 8 and we openly talked about it about age 10.
    Once she knew a chapter of Christmas was closed forever and I miss those days still.
    I adore the whole fantasy of Christmas with santa and she did too, now we all enjoy keeping it magical for Jake.
    Fay recently posted..Need a spa week?My Profile

    • says

      We haven’t had to explain Santa yet. I’m pretty sure my kid thinks he’s just another character like the ones he reads in books (after all, many of the times he sees Santa is in books). I do wonder though what he thinks when other kids talk about Santa like he’s real. So far he hasn’t mentioned anything!