The Truth About Santa Claus

November 25, 2013 | 10 comments

Once upon a time, a long time ago by journalistic standards, a little girl wrote a letter to The Sun, a New York City newspaper. Little Virginia O'Hanlon, eight years old, had a very important question to ask:

Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun it's so." Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?

The editorial response, published by The Sun, written by Francis P. Church, begins:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

The silent actor in this drama was Virginia's father, Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, who apparently chose not to answer his daughter's question and punted it to a newspaper. We have no record of why he did so. Perhaps he did not want to be the one to dash his daughter's belief in Santa Claus and thought it better for the newspaper to tell her the bad news. Or, because he was a medical doctor and therefore a scientist, perhaps Dr. O'Hanlon decided that Virginia was old enough to begin to seek answers to life's questions from the wider world beyond the circle of her family.

In any case, Dr. O'Hanlon's dilemma, unlike his daughter's, never received an answer. To this day parents wonder what to tell their children about Santa Claus. The apologists at Catholic Answers receive questions on this topic every year about this time. Here is one example:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC 2485] is very clear that we shouldn't lie for any reason. How then can we justify lying to children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, by telling kids they are real when we know they aren't?

Perhaps you have noticed from this question that it is now the parents, not the children, who are victims of what Francis Church called "the skepticism of a skeptical age." Staring at black and white, they see no gray. Something is either factually true or it is a "deception." Frankly, this is an impoverished understanding of the nature of language, of thought, and of truth.

Let's backtrack for a moment and look at some history.

The stories commonly told today about Santa Claus are based on legends surrounding the life of a real person. St. Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century Catholic bishop in Turkey. He participated in the First Council of Nicaea—where he was famously purported to have slugged the heretic Arius for denying Christ's divinity—and has been considered a patron of children for his generosity to them during his lifetime. For example, he is said to have provided dowries for three girls who would have been sold into slavery if they could not make good marriages. Over the centuries, the legends of St. Nicholas's life have been supplemented with Northern European myths, eventually culminating in the children's story A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, which imagined St. Nicholas as a "right jolly old elf," traveling the world on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, distributing gifts to children.

(Nota bene: It is worth considering that the name "Santa Claus" is not merely an imaginary moniker arbitrarily affixed to a jolly elf wearing red. The name is an Americanization of the Dutch Sinterklaas, which translates to "Saint Nicholas.")

Virginia O'Hanlon's letterThe parental dilemma arises when children find out that their parents are the ones who are providing the Christmas gifts, Easter candy, and tooth money. In my experience, parents tend to worry too much about how their children will receive this news. Many children through many generations simply accept this information as a part of growing up, and, in fact, some will "collude" with parents to keep the myth going by not letting their parents in on the fact that they know The Truth About Santa Claus. One reason may be to continue getting loot, but another reason may be to avoid spoiling their parents' or younger siblings' fun.

There may be children, though, who are sensitive to issues of truth versus lying and who may sincerely wonder if their parents have "lied" to them about Santa Claus. One way to answer this concern might be to explain the context of storytelling and myth-making, perhaps pointing out to the child that Let's Pretend is a game for people of all ages.

But is it "lying" to allow children to believe a myth? In my opinion, that is a misunderstanding of the nature of myth-making.

Cultures create and foster myths as a means of understanding the world around them. In the absence of science, the ancients needed ways to explain the natural phenomena, such as the movements of the sun, that they could not examine directly. Modern people tend to smile with condescension at the thought of ancient Greeks believing that the god Helios drove his golden chariot across the sky every day. They do not consider that perhaps the ancients knew as well as they do that this is not factually true but is merely a story that taught an important truth: There are reasons why we have periods of light and darkness, even if the ancient Greeks could not yet explain those reasons scientifically.

We may now have ways to scientifically explain natural phenomena, but we have not lost the need for story or for myth. And the ones who sometimes learn best through stories are children.

So, what can children learn about their world through belief in Santa Claus?

Well, for one thing they can learn that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished, not just because their parents say so, but because there is something larger than their parents that requires us to act rightly. The other day while my sister was driving with her children, another driver blew through a red light. My older niece, age ten, wanted to report the man to the police. My younger niece, age four, agreed with the idea but offered an additional suggestion: "And Santa Claus too! He'll put the man on the bad list!"

Children can also can learn from the Santa Claus legend that we are part of a larger universe, and that we are watched over and cared for by good spirits whom we cannot yet know empirically. This can be considered groundwork for introduction to the communion of saints. And, because Santa Claus is based on a real person, they need never stop believing in him; they need only mature in understanding of how St. Nicholas answers their requests.

Does this mean that Catholic parents must allow their children to believe in Santa Claus? Of course not. If a parent does not feel comfortable taking this approach to Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy) the parent is free to leave out such stories from his child's formation. I do think that Catholic parents should teach their children not to spoil the innocent fun of other children by telling those children that such characters are Not Real.

Virginia O'Hanlon eventually did learn The Truth About Santa Claus, of course. How did she turn out once she discovered The Truth? She grew up to be an educator. Throughout her life O'Hanlon continued to foster belief in Santa Claus by sending copies of Francis Church's editorial to the admirers who sent her letters. According to Wikipedia, O'Hanlon "credited [the editorial] with shaping the direction of her life quite positively."

No Santa Claus! Thank God, he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood (Francis P. Church).

Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers.

Comments by Members

#1  Brian Kerzetski - Las Vegas, Nevada

Thank you for this. I struggled with this when I first became a parent but eventually came to the realization you explained in your article.

Being an Eastern Catholic, St. Nicholas is a huge focus, especially during this time of year. My children put their shoes out for him on December 6th. They know that Santa is really St. Nicholas, and while St. Nicholas visits those who know who he really is on his feast day, he still rewards other good boys and girls on Christmas who know him as Santa. This even covers grandparents or others who want to give my children "gifts from Santa." He just visits their house later. All in all, it's about sharing Christ's message. Not only does this not spoil "Santa" for other kids, it allows my children to spread the news about who St. Nicholas is to those who don't know. Though, I suppose I should expect a call from the principal some day because my children are offending others by sharing Christian history.

November 26, 2013 at 9:20 am PST
#2  Alexa Wilson - Spring, Texas

I grew up in a household where Santa/St. Nicholas was greatly celebrated each Christmas season. As I grew into my early teens I came to realize that Santa did not fly around world, stopping at every house, defying space and time. I realized that good old St. Nick was not watching every decision I made in an all knowing and all seeing manner, like the omnipotent God I heard about in church. I realized that Santa Claus was a mythical character who people liked to perpetuate and celebrate because it was something that made them and others feel good. When I realized the truth about Santa, it was also then that I thought I had realized the truth about God - that God was just another legend to make us feel good and a fancied idea to help us deal with the struggles of life. Silly as it may sound, my wholehearted and loving belief in Santa, lead me to atheism. I stayed convicted of my atheistic beliefs for almost 20 years until I had a Saul to Paul conversion about 5 years ago. I know many people who grew up believing in Santa Claus did not become atheists, however I have heard many atheists compare the concept of God to the cultural concepts of Santa, the Easter bunny and the toothfairy. I am not willing to take that risk with my children, in order to make Christmas more "magical" for them. There is no escaping Santa in the USA during Christmas time, so my husband and I tell our children that Santa is a fun character like mickey mouse, but not real. We have stockings, but our children know that we fill them. Christmas is not any less magical for them than it was for me, instead they are just focusing on the real miracle of Christmas - God born as a baby for our salvation.

November 27, 2013 at 10:29 am PST
#3  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Alexa, I appreciate your concern, especially given your experience with atheism, and I am grateful to God for your re-conversion. It does sound though that perhaps you have allowed your experience to take you to the extreme other end of the spectrum. The fact is that Santa Claus is not merely "a fun character like Mickey Mouse," but is a historical person. If you deny the existence of a historical person to your children, what will you do when your children come to you one day and ask you why you denied the existence of St. Nicholas?

I do not mean to suggest that you must include St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus) into your Christmas celebrations if you do not wish to do so. That is entirely your choice. But you can handle the Christmas celebrations in your family exactly as you are doing—letting your children know from the very beginning that it is Mom and Dad who fill their stockings—without casting aspersion upon the historical existence of St. Nicholas.

November 27, 2013 at 11:24 am PST
#4  Alexa Wilson - Spring, Texas

Thank you for responding! Just for clarification, I do teach my children about the historical figure of St. Nicholas, who died in the 4th century and is in Heaven with God. I teach them that "Santa" who is alive and well in the North Pole with magical reindeer and a sleigh full of presents and coal, is fictitious like Mickey Mouse, but still fun.

November 27, 2013 at 3:34 pm PST
#5  Mira Perchek - Chisago, Minnesota

It bothers me that you can excuse what is clearly a lie as "gray area." It doesn't matter if kids can learn some positive lessons from believing in Santa Claus. We would not present Greek mythology as truth to our kids, because it's not true, plain and simple. They can learn 'something positive' from many things that are wrong (like an immoral movie with some minor positive aspect to it). That doesn't make it ok. When you blur the distinction between truth and lies, or right and wrong, so much, it makes it easy to excuse all kinds of evil under the pretense that there's 'SOMETHING' good about it. Our kids deserve unadulterated truth, and as Christians we shouldn't believe in 'white lies,' and call evil good. A lie is a lie.

December 1, 2013 at 1:02 pm PST
#6  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Mira, a lie is indeed a lie, but I think you have missed my point: Santa Claus is not a lie; and neither is Greek mythology, for that matter. Stories are not "lies." They are means of telling truths pictorially, rather than didactically. And, in any case, one of the major points of this blog post is that Santa Claus was a real person: St. Nicholas. "Santa Claus" is not just a made-up name for a children's storybook character. The name is an Americanization of the Dutch "Sinterklaas," which literally *means* "Saint Nicholas."

December 1, 2013 at 8:54 pm PST
#7  Philip Carney - Northglenn, Colorado

Good info, but I think we might be missing the point. Children look to Santa to give them something; this is what they have been taught to understand about Santa. Christmas and Saint Nicholas are not about getting they are about giving. (And I don't mean just Santa giving.) We all know that Jesus came to give Himself for our sins; He taught the Apostles His way of being humble servant leaders. This is what we should be leading our children to understand. It’s not about lying about a Saint that does exist, but is about teaching the true meaning of Christmas, giving of ourselves in Christ’s example. Remember God only makes good things; we have a talent to turn them into un-holy things, e.g. the commercialism of Christmas. Receiving is a good thing but learning to be a giver is even better. Children receiving good things can learn to value giving when we teach them about Jesus and his Birthday and how He and Saints like Nicholas gave to help others. I have been “Santa” for several years in my Parish, the Food Bank, my Knight’s Council, and my City and I always ask the children what they are giving to their parents, siblings, relatives, and friends and marvel at their reaction and then recognition of giving and receiving. Have a wonderful and Blessed Christmas!

December 6, 2013 at 2:52 pm PST
#8  Mira Perchek - Chisago, Minnesota

I understand the idea of myths being teaching tools, and that St. Nicholas was a real person. But what is a lie is telling kids that Santa Claus lives at the North Poles manufacturing toys with his elves, comes down their chimney & gives them things. Do you recommend following popular custom in teaching our kids this? Because it's not true - in other words, a lie. Is that unimportant, because it's not a 'big' lie?

December 7, 2013 at 10:47 am PST
#9  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Mira, I'm afraid you continue to miss the point. Telling stories is not "lying." If a parent reads a small child "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and then asks if the child would like to hang up his stocking for St. Nicholas, he is not lying. If he lets the child watch TV shows or listen to songs around this time of year and believe that "reindeer really fly!" he is not lying. If he takes the child to the mall for a visit with Santa Claus, or lets the child write a letter to Santa, or any one of a number of things that perpetuate the fantasy, he is not lying. Now if a skeptical older child directly asks the parent if the parent is the one filling the stockings, I don't recommend trying to convince the child otherwise. But there is a difference between perpetuating fantasy for a small child who wants to believe and trying to convince an older child who suspects The Truth About Santa Claus to believe against the child's better judgment.

December 10, 2013 at 12:23 pm PST
#10  Henry Ashley - Alton, Illinois


December 10, 2013 at 10:51 pm PST

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