Ask The Experts: Is it OK to Lie About Santa?

There’s a high premium on the truth in my house.  Imaginations abound, but we are firm believers in recognizing truth from fiction.  Though it’s tempting at times, I’ve never been one to candy-coat reality, to tell little white lies to avoid dealing with some of the hard stuff of parenting. Therefore, my 4 year-old son has a very well-honed baloney barometer — for the most part, he can smell it a mile away.  (He is known to whisper in my ear “Beware!” when he senses that someone is pulling his leg…)  So when it comes down to perpetuating the myth of Santa and the cannon of other beloved imaginary characters of childhood, I really stumble on what to do.

We decided to ask a few leaders of different faiths to pipe in on the issue.  Rev. Meg Riley, Unitarian Universalist Minister from Minnesota, Rabbi Moshe Levin from San Francisco, and Rev. Shelby Larsen of the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica (all parents) have joined our conversation to shine their own little light on the matter.  Let us know what you think, too!  We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.  And from all of us at The Mother Company, we wish you healthy, happy Holidays.

— Sam Kurtzman-Counter, President, The Mother Company

The Question:  What is your take on whether or not to spin tall tales to children about the existence of Santa (The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and the like?)

Rev. Meg Riley, UU Senior Minister:

When my daughter was seven, she came to me and said in the most serious voice imaginable, “Mom, I want you to tell me the truth about something, and if you lie to me about this I will never believe anything you say again, ever.” Needless to say, my mind went into red alert state, wondering about various things she might be about to ask.  “I’ll do my best,” I stammered.

“Is there a Santa Claus, or do you guys buy all my presents?”  She asked.  In my memory of this moment, her face is six inches from mine and her focused intensity is that of a bank robber demanding all the money (with a gun).  I considered only for a moment.  While he was part of our Christmas celebration, Santa Claus was not a being to whom I had a great deal of devotion.  I responded levelly, “We buy all your presents.”

At this, she collapsed sobbing in my arms for a great long time.  Clearly her commitment to Santa’s existence far exceeded my own.  That night, we were watching the movie Elf, where Santa’s sleigh won’t fly because not enough people believe in him.  My daughter leaned over to me and hissed, “It’s people like you who cause that sleigh to bump along the ground!”  Then she nodded to herself, confident she knew where her loyalties lay, moved almost imperceptibly away from me, and turned her full attention back to the movie screen.

It’s unquestionable that Santa Claus is a deity in our kids’ worlds, one upon whom much power has been bestowed.  So it is with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.  I have saved my daughters’ letters to all of them and they are a study in wonder, trust, and the eventual triumph of rationality.  (She requests a handprint from the tooth fairy.  Her last letter to the Easter Bunny scolds him for not going to the homes of her Jewish friends.)

I have no problem introducing all of these figures as part of the cast of characters who make our collective life more interesting.  Young kids have a blurry line between imagination and reality, and that is a beautiful thing.  The trick is, I think, to ensure in our families that these highly specialized figures are not the only deities worshipped!  How to do that?  For me, it’s not a matter of diminishing kids’ beliefs in these mythical creatures—it’s about enhancing their appreciation of the magic and the mystery of the rest of creation.

Amazing that a fat man in a red suit can come down the chimney?  Sure, but how about the fact that zebras exist?  Or giraffes?  Is the Easter Bunny incredible because he hides colorful eggs?  Yes he is, and also it’s incredible that the universe is full of bright colorful birds, butterflies and flowers that are even more beautiful!  Isn’t it cool that the tooth fairy cares about those tiny lost teeth?  Sure, and when people love each other, we care about every single hair on each other’s heads, so how much more cool that our hearts are that big and they’re still inside our bodies?  If kids are centered in a living, breathing, magical, mysterious, world each day, if what is holy is understood to be all around them, then the eventual letting go of Santa Claus—however grand that myth is—does not take apart their sense of awe and wonder.  It’s when Santa becomes the only magic in town, then when he is gone there is true devastation.

When my daughter was young and she asked unanswerable questions—Where do people go when they die?  Where are we before we are born? often our answer was “It’s a mystery!”  In our household, I believe, Mystery became the supreme deity.  Use whatever language is truest for you—God, spirit, love, breath, life, mystery.  But make sure your kids know that the most amazing  gifts they receive –life, love, beauty–do not arrive on a reindeer’s sleigh.  Then you can fully enjoy the ones that do!

The Rev. Meg A. Riley currently serves as Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a church without walls with 3500 members all over the world.  In the past, she has been a pre-school teacher, a director of congregationally based religious education programs, a youth minister, and served in a variety of positions related to social justice in the national headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Rabbi Moshe Levin, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El:

The kids are caught between the beard and the knee and are thrilled – the parents are caught between a rock and a hard place and are struggling – “What do we tell our kids about Santa?” (Or the oil miracle of Hanukkah, or the splitting of the Red Sea by Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments, or the Tooth Fairy?)  The “Rock” is our desire to teach our children honesty by example and they’re never too young to learn to tell the truth.  Besides, it is more disappointing when they learn from others and come home with accusing eyes for our lies.  The “Hard Place” comes from the look in their eyes when they are next on line in the Mall.

So, first parents have to ask themselves what they believe – about fairytales and about myths.  We have no chance of articulating our ideas if we don’t know what they are.  Then, comes a truth that doesn’t hurt nor disappoint.  Maybe even enlightens.  Myths express values not facts. Their characters are symbols as well as their acts.  So, try, “Sweetheart!  (Always ‘Sweetheart’ because nothing is more important than letting them know every moment that they are loved) Sweetheart, Santa’s coming on Christmas is a way big people have tried to tell little people how important it is to be good.  Most of the time, we don’t get presents or rewards for being good.  We do good because it’s the right thing and we want there to be lots of goodness in the world.  But just to get children started on the right path, big people came up with the idea of once a year, just once a year, rewarding children for good things that they do all the time.  And we gave this job to a man called Santa Claus – I don’t know why, but what really matters to us is that our children know when they’re very young like you are now, that doing good things is much better for everybody than doing bad things.  What good things do you think you’ve done recently, and what good things would you like to do tomorrow?”

And if you think this is a hard nut to crack, try telling kids that they have to eat matzah for a whole week because thousands of years ago other people were slaves!

Moshe Levin, a Rabbi for 41 yrs, is the father of 6 children and 2 grandchildren.  He grew up Orthodox, was trained Conservative, thinks Reconstructionist, celebrates Reform achievements, and put future hope in Renewal. Named Rabbi Emeritus after 18 yrs as Sr. Rabbi of Beth El in La Jolla, he is also serving Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco.

Rev. Shelby Larsen, Associate Pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica:

So, you tell the kids that a fat man with flying reindeer circumvents the globe in one night? Or, that a very large rodent invades their house leaving decorated eggs and goodies? Or even that a small  benign flying being comes into their room to leave a gift?  And you wonder, “what am I doing? Won’t they be disappointed when they find out I’m, well, lying is a harsh word, but certainly not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”

Let’s be honest. As children age, as they interact with the world and their peers, they slowly realize that Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are not real, in the sense of everyday life.  They belong to an experience beyond what we can see, can hear, can feel. They are, for a few years, figures that are accepted although there is no proof, and aren’t logical. In a child’s world, for those first few years, they are a matter of faith, of belief in things unseen and unknowable.

Belief in something other than ourselves, like all things, requires nurture.  Jesus tells us of the seed that falls on the road and cannot sprout. A child’s faith experience is like that. Without the nurturing of belief in what cannot be fully known, a child will find spirituality much more difficult as they mature.  And really, what’s wrong with telling your children that, during the dead of night, at the darkest time of the year, you can receive a gift?  Or that, in the spring, the natural world shares life and sustenance? Or, when you lose a part of yourself, you may also find that someone gives you the gift of something different?

These “imaginary” creatures are, if you so choose to present them, embodiments of the existence of that which cannot be completely understood, but must be accepted on trust and faith.

As a Christian minister, I have no problem with that.

A former entertainment lawyer, Rev. Shelby Larsen is now a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica.  She is the mother of three and the grandmother of eight, which you might think makes her something of an authority on mothering. However, she is constantly surprised by and learning from  the amazing miracles we know as children.

Join our conversation!  Be sure to comment below.


This post was originally published in December 2010.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our DVD series,“Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show,”which helps young children understand and express their feelings.  We want to be a parenting tool… For you!

Posted in: Expert Advice, Family, Holidays

Comments (17)

  1. raphus

    Do all the people who are so obsessed with not lying to their children read stories to them that contain talking animals? I’m an athiest (for the person who cared about that), and it seems pretty clear to me that there’s a valid place for mythical characters in children’s lives. Similarly, there are innumerable ways to guide children through the stories and concepts behind such characters without resorting to such black-or-white notions as “lies” and “the truth.” Obsessing over whether or not one is lying to a child by sharing such stories seems narcissistic to me.

  2. morgan

    By the time my daughter was 4 she knew santa wasn’t real. I can’t remember why it came up, but she still had a little brother and one on the way, so we decided to keep playing the game. When my son was 3 he was totally distraught at the thought of a strange man entering our house after we were all asleep. The thought so disturbed him that he couldn’t sleep. So at 3:30 am, I decided to tell him the truth about all of it and never look back. My children all know that Santa, the easter bunny and all those guys are not real and its just parents. They know not to tell other kids, and my daughter (now 6) loves pretending that they are really comming, while my son just enjoys the presents that we leave. Their little brother is just 2 and doesn’t really know whats going on, but Ill probably let him know also that its just a game grownups and kids play.

  3. Lorraine

    A lie is wrong, period! I can’t even believe that someone who is supposed to be a minister will say that this lie is OK when God’s word says that liars will not be in His Kingdom! Children trust their parents and other adults in their lives, so shouldn’t they be careful not to lie to them and deceive them? What kind of an example is that? I remember how much I loved and believed in Santa and I begged and begged my mom to tell me the truth about him one day and she would not back down from the lie. Then I found out, by accident that the Easter Bunny was a lie too! They teach you to believe something and love it, then it’s all a big lie? That’s wrong! Then, years later I start studying into the Bible, history etc, and learn that Jesus Christ wasn’t even born in December, or the winter and that He and the Apostles never celebrated that day or their birthdays. I learned that the xmas tree and all of the celebration was from ancient pagan customs and had nothing to do with Christ or with truth. WOW! He said that all who come to Him must worship Him in Spirit and in TRUTH! There is even a warning about not cutting down a tree, fastening it so it doesn’t topple over and decorating it in the book of Jeremiah. I hate lies and the world seems to thrive on the lies, greed and selfishness that permeate this world. That sickens me and makes me sad. I choose to have no part of the lies, whether it’s about Santa, a bunny that delivers chocolates (another pagan festival) or the lies in the government, food industry etc. Lies are wrong and children should be taught the truth in all things.

  4. Tracey – JustAnotherMommyBlog

    That said, I totally believe in the possibilities of anything. Santa Claus included. I hope everyone had a lovely holiday season, regardless of your beliefs. I hope that your New Year will be full of promise and joy.

  5. Tracey – JustAnotherMommyBlog

    Wait a minute: Santa’s not real?!?


  6. teresa peters

    I really appreciate everyones comments above… My husband and I are so torn about this issue. Even so, I actually used “Santa’s watching” to get her to go to sleep one night. That was way over my own line…

    I like the ideas about incorporating more talk about the mythology and storytelling aspects. And sharing the History and the Idea of lots of people embodying the “spirit” of Santa Claus and of giving…

  7. Pawyilee

    Stories: they’re all stories, as is this web sight and its commentary. Myths are stories with two essential characteristics: their origin is forgotten, and they inform behavior – inform, not prescribe. This especially true of advertisements presented in story form: have you forgotten that our present Santa Claus came to us by courtesy of a Coca Cola[TM] advertising campaign? And that many Coca Cola deliverers think it makes no sense to costume themselves as elves, when it doesn’t fit the geography? As to what is “real,” consider the real numbers. These were forced to make room for the irrational numbers, but the real numbers are no more real than their cousins. That applies in various ways to reality in general, and the stories we spin to explain it. And like everything else, they evolve.

  8. Joanne

    I have a 3 year old, you very much likes the idea of Santa, but who also watches the Veggie Tales Movie about St. Nick, so he gets the idea of why people talk about Santa at Christmas. But if you ask the kid what we are celebrating on Christmas he will tell you that we get to have a birthday cake for Jesus’ Birthday!! That’s what Christmas is about. We chose not to squash his imagination with “the truth” right now, but as he asks questions I will not start making of stuff up, but I will have fun with Christmas and enjoy his innocent imagination right now. We take this all step by step! And do what’s right for him!

  9. Mk

    Okay. I HAVE to comment. Has the world lost touch with history? Santa Claus is rooted in the factual behaviors of Saint Nicholas. Now this will bring up the question of the Bible and history itself as fact or fiction. Truth or lie? Well, it is storytelling. As generations of peoples from all culture, faith and custom have told. A singular persons point of view told to another and the chain of events that occurs as the stories are retold and eventually written and rewritten. Myth? Some may. Some may not. 
    I like best what was said by Rev. Larsen and best summed up as ” “imaginary” creatures are, if you so choose to present them, embodiments of the existence of that which cannot be completely understood, but must be accepted on trust and faith.”
    I choose to be factual with my children, but recently had this to say: 
    S is beginning to ask the questions about the truth of Santa. “How does Santa get around to every house the night before Christmas?”, “Why do we have to buy gifts if Santa brings them”, “What if he can’t fit down the chimney.”, “How come he puts presents in shoes in Germany and Italy and here he puts them under the tree?”. All of his questions followed up an assured “Well, I know the elves make the toys.”

    I try to tell him the story of Saint Nicholas, but he won’t have it. He wants to know about Santa. He wants to believe in Santa. I can’t help him too much. Oh, sure we have ALL the books and I read them with enthusiasm and vigor each night. It’s a balanced reading list: Santa, baby Jesus,  Saint Nicholas, traditions in other cultures… We have the movies: Charlie Brown, Ruldolph, Here Comes Santa Claus, Polar Express… Christmas music has been played nearly 24/7 since December 1. The tree…the stockings…lights on the house. You get the picture. Yet, I offer up no direct, verbal reassurance of “his” existence. 

    J came to the understanding of the true Santa quite quickly and without much todo around the age of five. For him it was a practical matter and to believe in anything else was simply poor logic. He knew he had unlocked a secret that most children his age had not yet come to know; and, with that knowledge came great responsibility not to tell. Everyone needs to come to the realization of Santa on their own time. He has done pretty well with that. He has told one or two (much to their Mother’s chagrin). He has also tried to perpetuate belief with grandiose “stories” of how someone might want to watch their behavior because Santa might be watching. He has used the truth as a bribe: “if you do this for me, I will write to Santa and tell him so you will get bigger presents”.

    I suspect J will tell S in a similar way my brother told me. Crushing. I don’t look forward to that. A few days before Christmas, the house all a glow with Christmas lights, probably similar Christmas music on in the background and right under the tree. Ouch! To this day, I am not sure if he was spiteful or not. And, I don’t remember the lead up. Just the devastating blow and how quickly it all made sense to me and how foolish I had felt for not figuring it out. Faith. It’s hard to explain.

    It’s tempting to put on a smile and with a wink of my eye support my son’s belief. It does not feel natural or right to set the record straight. I have no desire to pull the rug out from under him. I wince. Yet, I stick with my pat answers: “I don’t know, I have never seen Santa”, “Lots of people like to dress up as Santa.”, “We give presents to celebrate Jesus’s birthday and let people know we love them.”, “Everybody likes to play Santa and give away gifts” (also a stretch of truth, I know), “Every culture has its own traditions”.

    It’s funny, in some ways I was so self assured the first time around. Clearly saw the black and the white. With the second child, I have found a lot of unexpected gray. Once again, parenting has taught me to caste off my judgements. Funny, I thought I had already become non- judgmental. I guess I have a lot to learn;-)

  10. Jean

    I liked this article. It gave me ideas of what other people do about Santa versus Jesus, whether it’s okay to lie, etc. –

  11. b. schultz

    ‘If you believe in Santa, he is real’. My kids, and I think most, have a wonderful relationship to magic where they understand that it doesn’t have to be tangible to be “real”. i try to reinforce the magic and imagination aspect of ‘ the tooth fairy, santa, etc. as opposed to the ‘two bites of cookies’ that santa.

    the idea of Magic and imagination can be reinforced with =out it being a ‘lie’ i think. Let your kids make their own distinctions and they may be stronger for it.

  12. Mae H.

    Also, I do immerse them in the true spirit of the season – being present with others rather than just getting presents, giving to those in need, seeing the wonder in the solstice and the return of the sun, etc. As UU’s, it’s not about the birth of Christ. I try to make it about the birth of the Divine in each of us that the season hopefully helps bring out.

  13. Mae H.

    I am truly amazed at this whole Santa Clause thing. I am a Unitarian Universalist, like the first faith leader in your article, but I was raised Catholic. I grew up without the pretend Santa. He was always just a man dressed up. I don’t think my parents made a conscious decision to not tell me about Santa. They were just busy making ends meet since we weren’t well off. And as I grew older, I really felt like I missed out on something, some magic. I wish I experienced some of that magic as a child.

    As a parent of 2 preschoolers, I let them believe in Santa. Call it lying. I think of it as letting my children be children. And as they get older, then yes, we’ll have the talk about him not being real and the possible reasons why his myth exists. We already talk about other mature subjects: death, kidnappers, etc. They are aware of the not so pretty stuff in an age appropriate manner. But I think they should allowed to be a kid and enjoy Santa.

  14. Marina

    My 8 yearold started asking hard questions about Santa this year. She saw wrapping paper in the basement that matched the packages she got from Santa last Christmas. She found the paper over the summer.

    I explaine to her that Santa was not an actual person, but that the story of Santa represented love and generosity and magic. When she asked if we were really Santa, I said that the spirit of Santa lives in us and other people who give gifts at Xmas. A few weeks later she told me that mommmy and daddy turn into Santa on Xmas eve. The she asked me if it happened at midnight.

    She loves the song, “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus”

  15. Venice

    I think it’s interesting that you only asked religious ministers their opinion on this and they all three agreed that it’s a ok to lie to children to make them feel good. Seeing as that’s what religions do as standard practice, their responses do not surprise me. I would be interested to hear from a respected atheist.
    My nearly 4yo recently asked me what the deal was with Santa and I had to tell him the truth. He gets freaked out by monsters and other scary fantasy creatures but so far he believes me when I say they aren’t real, so don’t be scared. I fear that if I told him Santa etc did exist then he would more likely believe the frightening stuff did, too.


    • teresa peters

      Wow, that’s such a great point about the monsters, etc…
      I also appreciate what you pointed out about the selected opinions for this piece.

  16. mleyes

    I’m surprised that this question of lie and truth is wrapped neatly with a bow of “myth.” And I find this line the most convoluted “well, lying is a harsh word, but certainly not telling the truth.” The “truth” is, if you are not telling the truth, you are lying.

    No one wants to be seen as crushing a child’s chance to dream, but there are so many other ways to let a child explore dream, myth and imagination, without lying. For my two-and-a-half year old, there have been no questions about who Santa is or what he does. So far Santa is just part of the Christmas landscape. But when that question does come up, most probably next year, I will tell him the truth, that Santa represents the spirit of giving at Christmas time.