The Ethical Dilemma: Spilling the Beans About Santa

Joan Reisman-Brill offers advice to parents with children who have already begun to ask questions about Santa Claus.

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Spilling the Beans about Santa: My family was visiting friends in their Christmas-bedecked home when their 8-year-old daughter (middle child between 11 and 5) asked if we believe in Santa. Speaking for all of us, our 4-year-old instantly said no. The kids all seemed to take her answer in stride, but the mom looked very pained, said they had an early day tomorrow, and abruptly got our coats. Did we do something wrong? What else could we have done?

—Did Ask, Did Tell

Dear Did,

You, or more specifically, your young child, did nothing other than answer a question honestly. I suppose before going anywhere you could have coached your entire family to take the 5th if asked that question (and also any queries about other invisible personas), and sometimes tact is the better part of valor, but that hardly seems the ideal approach.

The fact that this child asked suggests she already knew or suspected the answer. Her mom can still tell her something like, “Santa is real, but some people don’t know that because he never brings them anything (because they don’t believe and/or they’ve been bad),” or whatever story she thinks will keep the pleasant fantasy alive a bit longer. But unless those kids are raised in a bubble, they must be picking up on evidence that Santa is just people dressed in costumes perpetuating a benevolent conspiracy.

While none of you has anything to apologize for, you could call the mom and tell her you’re sorry for any discomfort your daughter’s truthfulness may have caused. And then invite them to your house to celebrate Winter Solstice.


My Kid Believes in Santa: Although we are humanists, have never celebrated Christmas or other holidays this time of year, and speak frankly about how St. Nick is really us, our 3-year-old son has suddenly started believing in Santa, expecting him to bring presents, wanting a tree, etc. I’m not sure what to make of this or what to do.


Dear Scrooge,

You remind me of when I was one of a tiny Jewish minority growing up in a Christian town and longed to have their holiday instead of mine—which was more days but not better. At (public!) school we sang beautiful Christmas songs and made gorgeous Christmas ornaments, and one year I cut a chunk off one of our evergreens, set it up in my room and decorated it (but was instructed to hide it, and stop singing about “the little lord Jesus,” when Grandma came over). I too professed to believe in Santa even though deep down I knew otherwise.

I suspect your child is, like little me, reacting to all the commercials, movies, TV shows, friends, malls, displays, etc. that make Christmas seem like heaven on earth, and make those who don’t partake feel bereft. At least he hasn’t asked to attend midnight mass. Perhaps you can take a page from Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and create your own celebration. Why not make a Solstice Tree (which is, after all, the forerunner of the Christmas tree) decorated with sparkly and meaningful ornaments, hold a  party that includes gift-exchanging for kids, maybe even have someone dress up in a costume (Einstein?) to deliver Reason’s Greetings as we bid adieu to the old year and embrace the new? The possibilities are endless. And while your special observance may not hold a candle to the now two months of Christmas, if you are imaginative enough, you can make it the envy of all your child’s friends (who will be eager—and welcome–to join you). Also see if you can participate in any solstice or HumanLight festivities held by atheist or humanist groups in your area.

You can also encourage your child to do what I did: Help his friends decorate their trees (they thought it was drudgery, I thought it was a blast) and frost their cookies and exchange gifts. He could even tag along to a midnight mass, just to see what it’s like. No one has to be a believer to enjoy the trappings of the holiday. Your child will probably put this aside in time, but until then, you can maintain your humanist mind while indulging your soul in your favorite parts of Christmas—or Xmas, if you prefer.