I pride myself on telling my daughter the truth about almost everything. She’s known the right names for all her body parts since she could talk (there’s no “foo foo” or “nonny” in our house). I’ve explained carefully that – while others have different beliefs that should be respected – in my opinion there is no God, and I’ve even tried to normalise death as a sad but inevitable part of living.
But when it comes to Father Christmas, okay, I’ll admit it. I’m conflicted.
There’s just something about the magic of it that gets me. The delight in her eyes when she talks about what toys she might find on Christmas morning, the way she places her handwritten list (which, among other things, contains the heart-melting wish for “everything in the whole wide world to be made out of sweets”, for her baby brother “to sleep well” and “to meet Santa in real life”) in the fireplace, the letters she writes, asking if he’s “busy in his werk shop”. It’s just so... adorable.
And it’s brief. Just the other day one of my daughter’s classmates came over for tea, and talk turned to Santa. “Santa isn’t real,” the classmate scoffed. “It’s just your mum and dad.” My little girl turned her big eyes on me and went quiet. Then her face brightened. “No, it’s not,” she retorted, triumphant. “Santa delivers presents at night-time. My mum will be asleep in bed!”
Saved by child logic, for now. But I know it won’t last – and perhaps that’s why I’m clinging on as long as I can. It feels precious, the illusion that someone is out there, giving every child their heart’s desire. If only real life were that magical.
It’s not hard to see why we’re so sold on Santa. We’re surrounded by him: in ads and songs and films, in grottos and pound-shop accessories and shopping malls. And when reality is so grim – with Brexit and austerity and one million children in the UK facing “Dickensian” levels of poverty – it can be tempting to turn to a bit of red-and-white escapism.
So it wasn’t surprising to see that when a primary school asked children as young as nine to do homework researching if Father Christmas is real, it went down like a cold snowball down the back of the neck with many parents.
Cuthbert’s Church of England Primary School, in Lancashire, was accused of “taking away the magic of Christmas” by asking Year 5 pupils to tackle the project. Interestingly, the children decided collectively that Santa did exist – but that didn’t stop some people getting upset about it.
“It feels precious, the illusion that someone is out there, giving every child their heart’s desire. If only real life were that magical."”
I asked a friend for her perspective. Niamh Neville told her son there was no Santa as soon as he learned to talk. “The sell-in starts at nursery,” she said. “I am uncomfortable with the deceit and mixed messages about being honest and open. I dislike the trickery. So we told him straight – we were clear it’s still a lovely surprise and very exciting. But there’s no magic and we must remember that you can’t have everything you want.”
Niamh reminded her son that other children did believe in Santa – and he should take care not to spoil the surprise. “He pretends when he talks to his mates that he believes – but he’ll turn to me and wink and whisper: ‘we know, don’t we, mum?’”
The upshot? “It’s enabled us to talk about children who don’t get anything as he’s aware not all kids have parents who can afford it or feel able to,” she said.
“It’s definitely polarising and I’ve had a fair amount of pushback about denying him the magic – but to me there are so many amazing things in the world that we don’t need to create more, and it’s very important that our son can trust everything we say. We always try to be honest in an age-appropriate way.”
I’m no clearer on my own motivations, or why I’m keeping up the charade.
All I know is that one day, the idea of Santa will be a fond and poignant memory. But right now, he’s real. And I want him to stay – at least until the whole wide world is made out of sweets.