How to manage family Christmases when our kid doesn't believe in Santa Claus, but her cousins do?
December 12, 2011 7:07 PM   Subscribe

How to manage family Christmases when our kid doesn't believe in Santa Claus, but her cousins do?

We don’t want to lie to M, our daughter, by telling her that Santa Claus exists, but we also don’t want to upset her cousins who have been brought up to believe there’s truth to the whole Santa Claus story. The cousins get together for Christmases and I’m trying to work out how to handle this situation.

I’m completely confident in how I’ll explain to M about the Santa Claus myth and why others believe in something that we don’t, but how do I respond when one of her cousins (ages ranging between 5 and 8) asks about what presents M got from Santa? If it helps at all, when asked the same question by adults I say “we don’t’ have Santa Claus in our house” and leave it at that. But I don’t know how to convey the same sort of message to a kid who believes in Santa Claus without shattering their beliefs – the kid will ask why Santa doesn’t visit the Jones house and from there…well, I can’t think of a way for it to end well. In case I’ve not made it clear, I do not believe it’s my place to tell someone else’s kid that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
Also, when M is older, she’ll probably be asked the same sorts of questions while in the company of other children and I’d like to give her some guidance about how to answer these questions without destroying innocent dreams along the way.

In case it matters, this issue won’t come up at all this Christmas, as M is not even 2 years old, but for future Christmases it almost certainly will. I just really, really want to be prepared.

I’d especially love to hear from parents who’ve raised their children to be Santa Claus non-believers, but I’d welcome suggestions from anyone who might have an idea about how to handle this.
And, just to be clear, I am NOT asking whether or not I should raise my kid to believe in Santa Claus, though I have looked at the answers to this question.
posted by bunglin jones to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Have you talked with your siblings and sibs-in-law (the cousins' parents) about this? They may have opinions about how they'd like it to be handled, or suggestions for making it work. If nothing else, talking with them now will give them a heads up that the issue is coming.
posted by decathecting at 7:11 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

After I went around telling my fellow preschoolers that their parents were Lying to them about Santa, my mom had a nice conversation with me about how it's fun for other kids to believe, and how I shouldn't spoil it for them. My grandpa liked to give me at least one present from "santa" (even though it was fully understood who the thank you notes were going to). Maybe you can have one fun present designated as from santa that can be mentioned to others?

Kids didn't discuss which presents were santa presents all that much. If you impress on your daughter that this is a secret she shares only with adults, you and she should be able to carry on in front of her cousins with the occasional shared wink just fine.
posted by ldthomps at 7:13 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I figured out Santa before my older brother, and my parents praised me for being so clever, but to keep the secret so he could experience the Christmas magic. I always felt kind of special knowing something the grownups knew.
posted by xingcat at 7:14 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

My parents mom tried to keep up the Santa ruse at our house for many years, but I caught on pretty early (I was an obnoxiously skeptical child) that it was all a lie. My cousins and little brother believed in Santa for much longer. My dad never told me Santa wasn't real, but he also didn't discourage me from saying so.

When someone asks what Santa brought M for Christmas, just say, "M got a chemistry set and a James Randi book this year." No need to bring Santa into it at all. When M gets older, just explain to her that some people believe in Santa just like some people believe in the Tooth Fairy and god, and that it makes them happy to believe in him, so don't try to make them feel bad by telling them they're wrong.

In my experience it was never really an issue. (Though I did spend a lot of time encouraging my brother to compare our gift tags to some handwriting samples from my mom. Hmm.)
posted by phunniemee at 7:15 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was a Santa believer. My cousin not only told me that Santa didn't exist, but if I was really Jewish, like her (I was a halfsie), I wouldn't be so stupid as to believe. And it really, really hurt my feelings. So I appreciate you asking this.

When your kid is old enough, tell her that believing in Santa might be important to other kids--that it's part of a holiday tradition for their family, and that it's nice to let them have those traditions. When someone asks her (or you) what Santa got her for Christmas, they're trying to let her participate in the same sort of tradition--they're being nice. So the polite and kind thing to do is just answer, "I got x, y, and z for Christmas" and move on from there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:16 PM on December 12, 2011

We were brought up without Santa (which totally bums me out, I feel like I really missed something magical) and this is how we handled it:

-Other adults were told that we don't 'do' Santa
-We were taught not to talk about Santa with other children, that it was impolite (this failed a few times)
-Other kids were told that Santa only brings gifts to kids who believed and since we didn't believe we didn't get the gifts

The challenge for my parents was the age between 3 and 6, when we could effective communicate but lacked the empathy and good decision making to keep our mouths shut. Supervision was really the only way to keep things under wraps, but that is a definite commitment on your part.

Some responsibility must fall on the other parents. Make them aware of the way you're handling things so they can do their part. I plan to do the whole Santa thing with my kiddo, and would appreciate a family member or a friend giving me advance notice so I can run interference.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 7:19 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Let the parents of the cousins handle it. They should, IMHO, be the ones to talk to their kids about this kind of stuff.

FWIW, my family never grew up celebrating Christmas. It really wasn't a big deal to me, and I was fine with tolerating the Santa gift comparison questions when returning to school after break. But when my peers brought up the "naughty" BS and asking what I did that was so wrong naughty and bad so as to not get any presents, I, as a kid, was happy to spill the beans to them that it was all a huge lie.

It's the responsibility of the parents supporting the santa story to find a way approach this with their kids and also figure out how to respond to questions about real/not real. You nor your child are responsible for going along with the myths. On preview: the "don't discuss Santa with other kids" suggestion from Nickel Pickle is a great neutral idea.
posted by raztaj at 7:22 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

You didn't ask about this, but to chime in -

As another no-Santa household, I have to warn you that Santa's allure is strong.

My 3-year-old is now in preschool and is learning all about Christmas at school... just like he learned about Halloween and Thanksgiving (and a smidge about other December holidays) and now it is 'why don't we have a Christmas tree? REINDEER SANTA!!! ACCCKK1K1K1K1111!!!'

Somehow our non-theist beliefs aren't exactly something that are supported at school. Just wanted to warn you.
posted by k8t at 7:29 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was in a related situation: my parents actively did not agree on whether we should be told Santa is real. It caused a lot of confusion. There really is nothing either party can say to resolve the conflict. I ended up, as an adult, resenting the non-belief parent for making everything so difficult. So my opinion is that the kind thing to do is refrain from Santa conversations with, "We'll talk about it later," unless you are affirmatively certain you are among non-believing persons. Treat it like sex ed, you wouldn't answer an eight year old asking, "What's a vagina?" when the two year old is in the room.
posted by wnissen at 7:30 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was in this position as the kid whose parents were against belief in Santa, with younger cousins who did believe in Santa.

If memory serves, the way it went down was that I wasn't allowed to harp on the topic of Santa not being real to the other kids. If asked, I was supposed to say that I got my presents from my mom and dad and leave it at that. I think if pushed, I was supposed to say "Ask your mom." But I don't think anyone ever pressed the topic much with me, because after all, getting your presents from your parents is a far more boring and pitiable way to live than getting your presents from Santa like they did. There are more interesting things to talk about.

My mom was also a big fan of the stone-walling, repeated-sentence delivery, if there was something she didn't want to get into -- not just on this topic but on tons of things. And it was really pretty effective especially with kids.

It would go like this:

Cousin: "Santa doesn't come to your house?"
My mom: "Your cousins get their presents from me and their dad."
Cousin: "Why doesn't Santa come to your house?"
My mom: "Because we get your cousins their presents."
etc. ***

And like I said, she was also a big fan of "Ask your mom." --
Cousin: "Is Santa real?"
My mom: "Ask your mom"

***She did the same thing when I called her out after she was preaching to us about the evils of smoking pot.

My mom: It's not like how it was in the 70's. Everyone did it then.
Me: Did you smoke pot in the 70's?
My mom: Everyone smoked pot in the 70's.
Me: Did you?
My mom: Everyone did.

posted by cairdeas at 7:30 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not exactly sure how my parents pulled this off, but in my house it was a) fully understood that Santa was not real, and that it was in fact our parents acting like Santa, and b) fully understood that if we talked about how Santa didn't exist, "Santa" would no longer bring us presents. The same was also true of the Easter Bunny. What I don't remember, sadly, is what they actually told us to make this clear.
posted by brainmouse at 7:31 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I explained to my daughter when she was about three or four that Santa wasn't real, and that it was a secret only grownups know; and that it makes her cousins happy to believe in Santa and that if she told them he wasn't real they might not believe her anyway and they would be very sad. Works great.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:39 PM on December 12, 2011

Ok, so who is Santa? Santa is you. So, when someone asks M "what did Santa bring you for Christmas?" M can truthfully answer that "Santa" brought her a pony. Santa, in fact, did visit your house since you are, in fact, Santa. Ta-da!

My brother and his wife raised their children to not believe in Santa. My children - I sort of left it up to them and they sort of grasped onto the Santa thing so we kinda went with it. I'm sure my bro and wife had a discussion with their kids that our children believed in Santa and that they weren't to say/do anything to ruin that for them. I don't know if my kids ever asked their cousins what Santa brought them.

My children get one gift from Santa each year and the rest are from us. So, my kids don't ever say, "what did Santa get you?" but instead, "what did you get for Christmas?" In fact, I've never heard anyone say, "What did Santa get you?" It's always been "What did you get for Christmas?" because really, Santa could have gotten you crap and Aunt Margie got you a new Lexus. Does anyone care what Santa brought? Or do people really just want to know what you got for Christmas - without a care to WHO got it for you?

Of course, you know your family much better than I do, and perhaps people asking "What did Santa bring you for Christmas" is what's being said.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:56 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

My friend, whose children know all about Nicholas as a Christian saint, told his nephews and nieces that Santa Claus was a real person who punched Arius in the face, and that he's dead now, but he became a ghost and that's how he gets down the chimney.

Sorry, that's my answer to how to work the situation to your own amusement. I think you should prep your kids ahead of time to keep mum. I never had trouble doing that as a child, although I did ruin the Easter Bunny because I didn't realize that was covered under the same warning.
posted by michaelh at 7:57 PM on December 12, 2011

I second what Sassyfras mentioned: The people that you need to watch out for are the adults -- I've found they are far more likely to ask a child what they got from Santa. Kids are a little more to the point, in my experience: "What presents did you get!?" And that's where the curiosity ends, because classifying them based on who got what really isn't interesting to them.

If you feel strongly that the other kids might press the issue, explain to your child that other kids believe in Santa because that's what their families do, and it's not polite to talk about it with people that you don't live with. It doesn't really need to be more complicated than that.
posted by erstwhile at 8:27 PM on December 12, 2011

My advice is to just stop worrying about it and take it as it comes. We were in the same situation when my son was small. My new sister-in-law came with a ready made family, young children who had always known Santa wasn't real. We were assured that they knew not to spoil the secret for the believers but we are all nervous about it. My son was five when we had our first Thanksgiving dinner with adults sitting in the dining room, kids table in the kitchen. When one of the girls loudly proclaimed that they didn't believe in Santa, we all froze and held our breath. My son, who attended a very diverse Montessori school turned to her and politely said "Oh, are you Jewish?"
posted by raisingsand at 8:31 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

It seems to me this can be pretty simple. Tell your kid to let her cousins enjoy their Santa myth without spoiling it. When the cousins ask what Santa brought her, she can simply reply "I got X and Y for Christmas."
posted by asciident at 8:32 PM on December 12, 2011

I grew up in a home with dozens of people around on Christmas morning, including children of all ages.

The adults in my family always received presents from Santa, too, and this is how they were labeled under the tree on Christmas morning. We all still do, in fact.

In childhood, I moved through blind acceptance to awkward confusion about this, and I don't really remember when (or if) I ever really had the hard landing of an "Aha! Oh." moment.

As an adult, I now admire the way this kept things fluid and ambiguous indefinitely, rather than introducing a clear before/after, faith/reason sort of schism.

Take from this whatever you might find useful, of course. Or don't.
posted by rokusan at 9:43 PM on December 12, 2011

I wouldnt worry. M telling her cousins the truth is within the natural order of things. IME, the tradition is just to tell kids Santa is for real, and keep that up until they figure it out or some other kid clues them in. If your child is that other kid, so be it.
posted by Greener Backyards at 11:51 PM on December 12, 2011

I'll tell you a discussion that I had with my peers in first grade regarding the fat man. This was an unprompted playground discussion. We started working through how much work it would take Santa to cover just our town and that it was in fact not possible for one person to do that in a night. We also allowed how the Santa story was very old. Therefore, there was no Santa Claus. There was, however, still the idea of Santa Claus embodied in our parents, and in and as much as we had parents who embodied that idea we each had a personal Santa Claus and isn't that good enough?
posted by plinth at 2:57 AM on December 13, 2011

For advice, ask your kid's Jewish friends' parents.

As a nice Jewish girl (snort), I was told that Santa did not exist and let know that I had a great responsibility not to let the other kids know this, and that doing so would make them unhappy.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:09 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I always figured that in order to get to EVERY HOUSE Santa must outsource.

You should have received your contract in the mail, in case the cousins ask for proof.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:05 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

My kid has known Santa isn't real for a long time, and I don't know that I ever presented Santa as "real". My problem is the assumption that knowing Santa is imaginary automatically means that "Santa" presents must end.

See, kids don't really think the tapwater in little plastic glasses is really tea when they have a teaparty. They don't think that when they play 'gun' with sticks it's the same thing as using a real gun, or that their stuffed animals are really alive but not when anybody else is around. Kids are designed for imaginary playtime, and they act as though things are real even though the logic parts of their brains say no, and without any internal conflict. Kids don't have a problem with having 'real' things and 'imaginary' things in separate boxes BUT also pretending that the imaginary things are real if it brings them enjoyment.

As a parent, you've probably had all sorts of imaginary playtime activities with your kids, and Santa as imaginary playtime is, really, how many families do it. There's no attempt to promote a falsehood and shield all children from the Truth About Santa. The "lie" is that nobody stops pretending they're having imaginary playtime fun. I'm not saying that's what your siblings are doing with their kids, but it's how Santa can still be done every year when there's so much logic saying otherwise.

So, even though a kid knows that Santa is really Mom and Dad, they can live a very happy life with the family tradition of the imaginary Santa bringing gifts that appear magically on Christmas morning. That doesn't betray any empirical logic of the universe, and nobody is lied to, but Santa still gets to come.

So, I'd say that -- if you want to protect your kids' cousins from uncovering the lies their parents tell them -- tell your kid that you're going to start participating in the Santa tradition, with full knowledge that Santa is really mom and dad playing a game, but without saying anything about the cousin's infallible beliefs. As long as everybody is playing along, your kid is unlikely to challenge the reality. Your kid is having fun with the family, getting presents, and everyone's happy, so "Santa" as a tradition trumps "Santa" as reality.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:49 AM on December 13, 2011 [8 favorites]

Wait a second.

In case it matters, this issue won’t come up at all this Christmas, as M is not even 2 years old, but for future Christmases it almost certainly will. I just really, really want to be prepared.

So your child is not yet 2, and her cousins are ages 5 to 8.

I have a feeling that it's going to be another couple years before she even starts talking to them/thinking about the difference, at which point her cousins are going to be ages 7 to 10 -- which is when the problem might start taking care of itself, so to speak. (Meaning: your siblings are going to be the ones to start worrying, "okay, our OLDER kids know Santa isn't real, how do we keep them from spilling the beans to the younger kids -- oh, wait, M already knows. Phew.")

And 10 years old is definitely old enough for some kids to start Getting Suspicious. My brother was about eight, in fact.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:44 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I only remember believing in Santa briefly one Christmas when both my parents claimed ignorance about a big present under the tree, and somehow the existence of Santa seemed more plausible than My Parents Lying. I don't remember them ever trying to make me believe in Santa at all. But my mother did (and still does sometimes) put 'From: Santa' tags on some of my gifts, and a bunch of thematically appropriate variations (Santa and Mrs. Claws for cat-related things, Sinterklaas for, I dunno, something German? That kind of thing) -- so I knew my parents were Santa, but I also liked the make-believe part of it, and responded in kind when I was older.

Basically what AzraelBrown just said -- the Santa thing isn't entirely about believing and magical magic secrets, it can just be about having a nice, funny family tradition. If your kid knows that for some people, gifts come from Santa, she can just tell her cousins about her gifts, because that's the question they're actually asking. Santa doesn't really have to come into it.
posted by little cow make small moo at 6:37 AM on December 13, 2011

We worried about this too! And it was totally ok.

We don't do Santa, but we still do Christmas presents, the tree, the lights, etc. It's just all from us/whoever to the kid. He likes stories about Santa, though, and we don't forbid them at all any more than stories about Goldilocks. We tell him Santa is a game lots of grownups and kids like to play at Christmas.

He has cousins, one of whom is past Santa age, the other who may still be in it, but neither of them seem to be that interested in talking about Santa....they have other things to do/discuss. It doesn't seem to come up. At school, I think there's

Last year, the kid asked (he was 5) "Mom is Santa real?" "No." "Does he come to our house?" "No."

Kid had a sad face. I said, "Do you want to pretend Santa comes to our house?"


And that was that. When he wakes up Christmas morning, his presents are there, and at least one is from "Santa." He has stuff in his stocking. And we're good. We don't do the cookies/carrots for the reindeer thing.
posted by emjaybee at 10:19 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Argh, meant to say, at his school, I think there's a mixture of believers and hasn't been any kind of an issue that he's told us about.
posted by emjaybee at 10:20 AM on December 13, 2011

What we did was tell our kids it was fun to pretend and that they should let the cousins believe without correcting them. It MOSTLY worked.;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:36 AM on December 13, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. I haven't marked a single best answer because I think I'll take an approach that's informed by bits and pieces from a lot of the advice given here. You're all very kind and I hope your holiday seasons are as stress-free and happy as possible.
posted by bunglin jones at 4:19 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Help me make better electronic music.   |   Birth Control: Does it get better? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.