For many, the fantasy of Saint Nicholas gliding across the sky behind eight tiny reindeer represents the magic of childhood.
To others, this jolly foreman of an Arctic elf sweatshop represents the crushing realisation that parents are jerks who perpetuated a lie – and according to early results from a new survey, parents are taking a gamble by indulging this traditional fantasy.
“During the last two years I have been overwhelmed by people getting in touch to say they were affected by the lack of trust involved when they discovered Santa wasn’t real,” says psychologist Chris Boyle from the University of Exeter in the UK.
Boyle is conducting a survey to understand how the discovery of Santa’s mythical status affects people around the world. Feel free to let him know how the revelation provided years of material for your own therapy sessions – Boyle is still collecting data, and won’t have any solid answers until next year.
But he has taken an early peek at roughly 1,200 responses received so far, and shared the results for those of us who might want to copy them down for support when the inevitable argument with the folks over childhood trauma arises this Christmas.
So far, a third of the respondents reported feeling upset on learning Santa Claus wasn’t real.
A total of 15 percent felt betrayed, while 10 percent admitted anger upon hearing the news.
For 30 percent of those surveyed, the Santa myth even affected their trust of adults.
“As much as this research has a light-hearted element, the responses do show a sense of disappointment and also amusement about having been lied to,” says Boyle.
That said, if you’re on ‘Team Claus’ when it comes to raising kids, you’ll be pleased to learn the data suggests most kids who find out the truth will still believe whatever their parents tell them, with 56 percent of respondents saying their trust wasn’t shaken.
Back in 2016, Boyle and his colleague Kathy McKay wrote an essay titled ‘A wonderful lie’, considering the sociology of the Santa myth and whether such deceit is morally naughty or nice.
“Is the world so bad that we decide that it is better to spend around 10 years lying to children about a large jolly man who gives presents to all children with the help of mythical creatures, because it makes for more enjoyment at Christmas?” they asked.
According to early survey results, just under three-quarters of us would say yes; a total of 72 percent of parents play along, actively engaging in the fraudulence by forging gift labels and sipping milk in the hope of fooling gullible infants.
It’s not even like they do a convincing job! In a clear want of adequate criminal schooling, many parents blunder their way through, failing to hide purchased gifts, or leaving other obvious clues about Santa’s true identity.
A number of the respondents recall how they discovered the stark reality of Christmas. For one, it was a tipsy parent noisily dropping presents. Another discovered letters to Santa in their parents’ room.
Science busted the myth for at least one individual, who crunched the numbers on children, global distances, and physics, before realising it was all bunk. For another, it was socialism – why didn’t this benevolent magical figure bring joy to those in impoverished nations?
And yet, in spite of putting the pieces together, finally aware that our parents have willingly – if clumsily – woven an intricate fantasy, it seems around two-thirds of us still played along. What gives?
The reason might lie in a rather surprising result that suggests one in three of us wishes we still believed in Santa. Whether that reflects a wish to return to a state of childhood naivety, a desire for a powerful gift-giving ally, or acknowledgement of good behaviour, it’s hard to say.
Just 34 percent of those surveyed admitted that their actions had been kept in check by a belief in the existence of a ‘naughty list’. Of course, this also implies that threats of supernatural privacy invasion won’t work on the majority of children.
Our fascination with the psychology of Santa seems almost as evergreen as the myth itself.
Past research has also shown that most of us learn the truth around age 7 or 8, with generally positive effects. Most of us deal pretty well with the complexities of deceit and story-telling, taking it as a life lesson, rather than an insult.
We’ll have to wait to see if Boyle’s final data challenges the current consensus.
But don’t let that stop you when it comes to slipping the folks the bill for your next psych appointment, along with the annual Seasons Greetings card.