How I Told My Kids the Truth About Santa Claus

Ready to have the talk with your kids about Saint Nick? Here's how eight dads handled it.

You can call the story of Santa Claus silly if you like, but it’s not nearly as bizarre as what parents do in response to it. Christmas is the only time of year when mothers and fathers essentially conduct a reverse-heist on their own house, and their children are the security guards. As they get older, the security guards begin to poke more and more holes in the operation, until, hopefully, everyone agrees that it’s a nice heist, and they should keep doing it anyway.

But there generally comes a day when the existence of Santa will be brought up by one party or another, and with it, parents are presented with a perfect representation of the contradiction of raising a child: how do you keep your kids happy and tell them the truth at the same time?

There’s no one right way to answer this question, and no two kids will bring the situation up in the same way. Very few of them will let you off the hook, however. So, in advance of the Christmas season, we asked dads to tell us about how “the talk” came up in their household, or if it ever did, and what happened next.

“I Had a Hard Time Lying in the Face of Direct Questioning”

The unraveling of the myth came after independent interrogation by [my oldest kids] Jaya and Jesse questioning the factual basis of certain central tenets. Jaya started to get suspicious when she was informed by her friend Rebecca, who is Jewish, that Santa doesn’t visit her house. Rebecca didn’t go so far as to suggest that there was no Santa, only that her house was somehow being embargoed by Santa. Anyway, Jaya started questioning us about how that could be the case, and specifically, how Santa could do such a thing.

At the same time, Jesse (not surprisingly) was coming in on a different vector, challenging logical, scientific, and engineering aspects of the story: Reindeer can fly? They can land on our very steep roof without falling off? Santa comes down our chimney? And then goes back up? And somehow the floor isn’t dirty with soot and dirt? And Sophie, our dog, doesn’t bark during any of this?

I myself had a hard time lying in the face of direct questioning just to preserve a barely tenable myth. I mean, I had my credibility to worry about since the kids were in elementary school and already hearing all sorts of stuff challenging parental orthodoxy. If ever there was a slippery slope, this surely was it. -Micky Tripathi, 45

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A Gradual Approach

My new novel Half the Child chronicles the relationship between a devoted dad and his quizzical young son as they endure a custody and abduction battle. As a single father, I mined a few conversations I once had with my son Nick, who not only divided his time between two households, but also split the holidays between his maternal Jewish and paternal Christian relatives.

Christmas was when we spent the most time with my large Irish family, and I embroidered the myth of Saint Nick to even suggest he was my son’s namesake. What’s more, my brother — a former Army drill sergeant — often played Santa Claus for his nieces and nephews, without them ever suspecting. When Nick was three I stayed up all night hot-gluing tracks to a Thomas the Tank Engine train board, only to have him ask the next morning why all his gifts were from Santa and there was nothing from me. So when the time came to break the news to Nick, I decided to do so gradually, by interspersing gifts from Santa with gifts from me. Over three years there were fewer tags from Saint Nick, and more from Dad, so that the break was not an abrupt one. By the third year, Nick sat in my lap and smiled. Then he tugged at my whiskers and said, “I always knew my gifts were from the chubby guy with the beard.”

-William J. McGee, author of Half the Child

“We Had Some Rebuttals, But Figured It Was Time”

One Christmas Day we were driving home, and we got caught in the lie of Santa Claus.

Siena, now 21, was five or six. Suited up in her one-piece pajamas, strapped into her booster seat, not distracted by her two older siblings, she had a quizzical face, as though she was figuring out something. She didn’t blurt out the discovery. She was putting the pieces together.

“Mom and Dad”, she says, “There is no Santa Claus!”  “What!?” we shout out. “How can you say that? What about all those presents you received this morning.  Where did they come from?”

“It must be you two,” she says. “Really, how do you know?”

With the certainty of a preacher, she says: “How is it that Santa Claus, or those elves, has the same wrapping paper as the presents you gave [cousin] Matt? How is it that Santa eats all the cookies and milk put out for him? There must be a gazillion homes he visits, and how does he deliver everything around the world, in a few hours?”

We didn’t have an answer. Well, we had some rebuttals, but figured it would be a waste of time. -Giles Taylor, 48

“For All I Know, The Kids Still Believe in Santa”

I have to say I don’t think we ever had that talk. For all I know the kids still believe in Santa — I mean why look a gift horse in the mouth, right?

Somewhere along the line I read the “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” essay, and I have to say it resonated very strongly with me. The fact is that there are so many parts of modern society that exist only because enough people believe in them — schools, libraries, the arts only begins to scratch the surface. As such, starting life with a belief in something or someone that is generous and selfless and brings joy to children everywhere seems like a great first step. -Norton Allen, 52

“She Was Like a Prosecutor”

Here’s how my daughter Lizzie learned those hard truths. She had been told by a classmate that there was no such thing as Santa Claus and came home on a mission. She was like a cop wearing us down into making a confession we didn’t want to make. She would say, “I know that Santa isn’t real.” And we would try to make some soothing, equivocal change of subject. No way. “Just tell me. I already know!” And like every dumb crook, we got lulled into thinking that admitting it would be the right thing. “What about the Tooth Fairy? What about the Easter Bunny? Are they real? Why did you lie?” She was like a prosecutor. Tough kid. Love her to death. -Michael Beers, 38

“We Never Said There Wasn’t a Santa Claus”

We did not have a real fireplace in our first home so we had to explain to the kids that not everybody has fireplaces and therefore Santa Claus found other ways to sneak into the houses. My wife and I made cookies, left crumbs, stuffed presents under tree late at night, hung stockings, and loved doing this for them.

Whenever the question came up about the existence of Santa Claus, we talked about it being a belief, and part of the magic of this story is that you must believe. We never had a conversation that said there wasn’t a Santa Claus. We kind of just knew there was a point where the kids did not believe anymore but they never challenged us, and we never came out and said anything about it. When I [asked my son about this], he said “Mom loves the tradition of Christmas” and he never wanted to challenge that generosity and love for the holiday.  If I am lucky enough to have grandchildren, I know I will continue to do whatever I can to maintain the magic of this holiday. -Eric Luden, 49

Once the Older Sibling Knows the Truth, It’s Over for the Younger One

I’ve always told my girls that if they want to hear the truth, just ask and I will tell the truth. When my oldest first pushed on Santa, I asked her “Do you really want to know?” She decided not to ask. My younger daughter pushed the next year and I told her that if you don’t believe in Santa then Santa doesn’t believe in you.

My daughters are now 13 and 15. I think the stages go like this: They believe [until age six]. They want to believe, but know it isn’t real [until age nine]. They don’t want to believe, and want to point out that they are older [until age 12]. They don’t believe but like to play along as part of the tradition.

I will point out that once the older sibling knows the truth, it’s over for the younger one.  They can’t not tell the younger one.

It’s bittersweet.  I liked that my girls started to realize that Santa wasn’t real as they were maturing. Now that they clearly know, we still have fun with it. We buy cookies for Santa together. The best part today is writing them a Christmas letter from Santa. It is a fun way to let them know how much I love them. -John Crossman, CEO, Crossman & Company

Santa’s Not the Only Thing That Makes Christmas Special

My son was on the older side of things when he asked me about Santa. He was probably 11 or so, so he approached the topic soberly. I think he had already made up his mind about the existence of Santa Claus, or lack thereof, and it was more about how I was going to respond. I told him that different people believe different things about Santa, but that Santa shouldn’t be the only thing that makes Christmas special. He nodded and told me that he’d come around to the idea Santa probably doesn’t exist. I told him I think I felt the same way. But, he said, we should probably keep up appearances for a while around his sister, because it seems to make her so happy. I’d never been more proud of him. –Anders H, 44