Heads up: this article contains information about the existence of Santa.
It was coming up to Christmas and Catherine Gladwyn, then 11 years old, was sat in class, watching as her teacher went to write something on the blackboard.
She then stopped herself, turned to the class and uttered eight words which Gladwyn still vividly recalls to this day: “No one believes in Santa anymore, do they?”
“It felt like everyone shouted ‘no’ and started laughing as if it was a preposterous idea that we believed in Santa. But I did!” says Gladwyn.
“I remember being absolutely gutted. I was old enough that it felt crushing, that so much had been a lie. I was actually devastated.”
As a child, she remembers getting so excited about the thought of a mysterious man travelling the world with presents to give to her – only if she was well-behaved, of course.
“I do recall swearing loudly at primary school in the playground and being full of absolute fear that Santa wouldn’t visit, though,” she adds. “Is that a good thing for children to feel?”
Needless to say, when Gladwyn had a daughter of her own, she felt strongly that the tradition of Santa was not something she could continue.
Despite admitting to being “distraught” when she found out Old Saint Nick wasn’t real, her primary reason for not following the tradition with her own child was “so she could appreciate the value of her gifts”.
“I was a single parent and had to work to afford us a life, so wanted her to know that working hard equals a good outcome,” the 46-year-old from Swindon explains.
“I do not think any differently about any parents who do the magic of Santa. It was just my decision not to.”
Similarly Rachel Brydon, 43, admits she’s never done Santa with her child Freddie, who is now eight years old. It was a conscious decision the parent mentor and consultant, based in Cardiff, made when he was a baby.
“I could see that Christmas was getting more and more commercial, and things weren’t getting more magical, but more about the pressures to do the same Christmas Eve boxes and Santa experiences as everyone else,” she explains.
“I’ve been a conscious/attachment parent from the start and lying about who bought the presents didn’t feel right to me, and especially not the idea of someone ‘watching’ you to get you to behave.”
Lying to kids and the focus on a stranger monitoring behaviour are two areas which make both parents and psychologists nervous.
Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, previously told The Guardian: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”
Meanwhile Chris Boyle, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, said using Santa as a tool of control in the lead-up to Christmas is “potentially not the best parenting method”.
Brydon, a single parent, admits she’s had some pushback from family members over her decision to not do Santa, but has been happy to explain her reasoning.
“I wanted Freddie to massively enjoy Christmas though and never intended for his enjoyment to be diminished,” she adds, “so I set about Christmas being a celebration of us as a family, and an opportunity for us to get some lovely traditions in place.”
Parents are finding new traditions instead
One such tradition is that every Christmas Eve, they will go to see The Nutcracker ballet together. “We started this when he was one and I bought really cheap seats in the gods so we could leave half way [through],” Brydon recalls.
But her son was absolutely entranced, so every year they move down a tier – and now she buys “the good seats” as he loves it so much. “We always go for food before and it’s a lovely way to spend the day,” she adds.
In December, they’ll also embark on a huge jigsaw puzzle together, do a Lego advent calendar, and they’ll attend some local light displays.
“This year we’re going out for our Christmas meal and I have no doubt he’s going to ask for it to be a new tradition – not because my cooking is terrible, but because he adores eating out as much as I do,” she adds.
For Gladwyn and her daughter, who is now 25, stockings are a must.
What if they spoil it for other children?
Both parents have never been concerned that their children will spoil it for others, because they’ve actively had conversations with them about it.
Discussing how she broached the topic with her daughter, Gladwyn, who works as a virtual assistant trainer, says: “I told her the story of Santa and what some parents do and told her that other children must not know the truth from us, but from their own parents. She never told anyone or ruined the magic for others.”
Likewise, Freddie has been briefed not to spoil it for others, but Brydon insists there’s no pressure on him to keep the secret.
“I explained it to Freddie as a story that other families like to do and play along with together. He was already adept at understanding that different families had different rules from play dates and seeing parents in parks,” she explains.
“I told him he didn’t have to tell any other child that it was a story. I never made a big deal of it though as, to be very blunt, it is not the responsibility of a 2-, 3-, 4- or 5-year-old to uphold other families’ traditions for them.”
She continues: “We live in Cardiff and there is a massive range of cultures and religions here. At his nursery and school there were children who didn’t do Christmas at all.
“It’s naive to think that every Muslim parent is telling their child to go along with Santa being real. Or even the children with older siblings who get told by ‘helpful’ brothers. Luckily he wasn’t a child who wanted to say it to children and he’d even nod along if friendly strangers said, ‘Ooh are you on Santa’s nice list?’”
What do the children make of it?
Brydon says her son has “always been thankful” to her for not lying to him “and hasn’t had any trouble seeing Christmas as magical”.
“I’m glad he knew I bought the presents and put so much thought into what I thought he’d enjoy,” she adds.
As for Gladwyn’s daughter, now a grown-up, she doesn’t feel like she missed out on any extra festive magic growing up.
“It’s not affected me in any way,” she says. “I don’t resent or feel I missed out on anything and I am very good with, and appreciate, the value of money.”