As a four-year-old boy, Michael Leviton had no interest in Santa Claus.
That was partly because he was Jewish. But it was also due to his parents’ belief in total and uncompromising honesty, Leviton writes in his memoir, “To Be Honest” (Abrams Press), out January 5.
Raising him in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, they made sure he knew all the brutal details of life, such as the fallibility of his teachers, the inevitability of death, and the fact that Santa Claus has always been a cultural myth.
That didn’t stop some of his relatives from trying to make him believe, however. Leviton recalls his “Grammy” taking him to visit a mall Santa, insisting that: “Without Santa, there wouldn’t be any Christmas.”
As they waited in line, his grandmother instructed Leviton to tell the red-suited stranger exactly what gifts he wanted. But when he climbed onto Santa’s lap and was asked for his wish list of presents, Leviton looked into the bearded man’s face and responded simply: “I’m Jewish.”
Santa just laughed and then whispered into Leviton’s ear a truth of his own: “Me too, kid. Me too!”
When Leviton recounted the mall-Santa’s frankness with his mother, she applauded his sleuthing skills and tried to explain why so much of the world prioritized the fantasy of Santa over truthfulness. But then, in an uncharacteristic move, his mother asked him to do something that went against their family’s entire honesty-at-all-costs worldview.
“Next year, in kindergarten, if they ask you about Santa, tell them you’re Jewish so you only talk about Hanukkah,” she said. “Maybe tell them the story of the menorah instead.”
A horrified Leviton responded, “Isn’t that lying!?”
“Yes,” his mother said. “But just this once, it’ll be better if you don’t tell them the truth.”
It’s a story that likely rings true with many parents, regardless of their religious views. I’m right in the midst of that struggle currently, conflicted over what to tell my kid about Santa. It felt like harmless fun when he was just a toddler, but he’s now 9 years old and still believes.
What’s the big deal? A 2019 House Method survey, which included more than 4,500 U.S. families across the U.S., found that the average age when kids stop believing in Santa is 8.4 years old. Letting a child believe beyond that age, or ruining the illusion too young, can seem like a betrayal, a form of parental violence.
More than his age, the reason I feel a little weird about Santa is that it’s 2020, a year when lying has become increasingly normalized. Our son sees his mother and I grumbling about fake news on the Internet and social media hoaxes and a president who keeps insisting he was swindled out of an election. Lies are everywhere, and we’ve tried to protect our son and equip him with the skills to be a critical thinker.
But then once a year, we tell him (with a straight face) that a magical fat man visits our home and leaves presents in the night. How exactly do I — or any parent, for that matter — repeat that gibberish and not feel like a hypocrite?
It’s not like I’m a passive participant in the ruse. I encourage my son to write letters to Santa, I leave reindeer tracks in the snow, I eat the milk and cookies left for Santa on Christmas Eve. Parents push hard to keep the Santa myth alive — one survey found that 84 percent of parents take their kids to visit two or more Santas in a typical holiday season.
If we drop the ball, there are plenty of co-conspirators eager to corroborate the story. The U.S. Postal Service provides a North Pole postmark to make Santa letters appear more authentic. A company called Santa’s Shop provides customized letters from Kris Kringle to children all over the United States. Santa has his own official Twitter account, which has never been flagged for false or misleading statements. No less an authority than Dr. Anthony Fauci recently claimed that he personally visited the North Pole and “vaccinated Santa Claus myself.”
Honestly, I’m just getting sick of the whole thing. It’s exhausting work to keep the deception going year after year, knowing that all it takes is one slip-up and the magic is gone. I’m also tired of a fictional character getting all the credit for Christmas. Last year we gave our son a piano. Do you know how difficult it is to sneak a piano into a city apartment and then make sure it’s hidden until Christmas morning? And then your kid is like, “I can’t believe Santa did this for me!”
I want to tell him the truth. But I also don’t. Because this year has been hard, for him and every other kid. From remote learning to playing with friends six feet apart, 2020 has been lonely and isolating and more than a little scary. On a dime, the world shifted from a welcoming place to something dangerous and full of anxious adults yelling at them to stop tugging at their masks.
The Post Office’s Operation Santa program collects letters sent to St. Nick from around the country, and this year’s requests have been especially painful to read. One letter asked for “(an) end of Covid-19, world peace, climate control, new Xbox.” Some ask for masks, or apologize for being bad, explaining that “it’s really hard because of Covid-10 and online school.” A five-year-old from California asked for the pandemic to be over “so we can hug.”
It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, the security blanket of Santa is a comforting myth. On the other, it’s a lie that reinforces the idea that adults can’t be trusted. That may sound like an overreaction, but there’s research to suggest it's not just parental hand-wringing. A 2014 study from the University of California–San Diego found that children who’ve been lied to are more likely to cheat (sneaking a peek at something they’re told not to) and then lie about what they’d done.
The first international “Santa survey,” in which researchers spoke to 4,200 Christmas-celebrating people from around the globe, was full of disheartening evidence that bursting the Santa bubble is trauma-inducing. A third of respondents said they were crushed after finding out that Santa didn’t exist, and 34 percent wished they still believed as adults. The disappointment of losing Santa could be so upsetting that it creates a “JFK effect,” the U.K. researchers write, in which people can still vividly recall where they were and what they were doing when they first learned the awful news.
The Santa story is one of the “big” lies about how the world works, says Kira Tomsons, a philosophy professor at Douglas College near Vancouver. “Now more than ever, we need kids to be thinking about what is true in the world and teaching them that they can trust us to be telling them the truth. We have duties to ourselves as moral people to cultivate the virtue of honesty and trustworthiness, which I think that lies about Santa can undermine.
“And yes,” she adds, “I really do think any parent who tells their kids they always have to tell the truth to their kids but lies about Santa, the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy is being a hypocrite. Sorry!”
Rohan Kapitany, a psychologist at Keele University in the U.K. who recently published a study on children’s belief in fictional characters like Santa, has a more optimistic view of Santa’s cultural role. “To characterize Santa as a ‘lie’ is to miss the point of Santa,” he says. “Santa encapsulates a wide range of normative, cultural, and social values. He’s a simple way to incentivize widely accepted pro-social values: be nice, be kind, share, and do good.”
His advice is to let kids have Santa and encourage them to discover the truth on their own. “You might begin asking your child to think through the implications of what a real Santa might be,” Kapitany said. “A gentle stepwise process might open the door for greater critical thinking.”
I still felt confused about whether it was a good idea to rip off the Santa lie like a bandaid or let it ride for one more year. Everyone has an opinion on the best way to do it (or not do it). Dale McGowan, the author of “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion”, suggests encouraging my son’s sleuthing skills. “Make a big deal about him being too smart and grown-up now for your trick to work,” he says. “And quickly follow up by assuring him that the presents still come.”
My parenting friends run the gamut of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to old-school evasion. Mark Sutton of Chicago, Il. says he and his family are clinging to the Santa story even as their children start to wise up. “When our oldest was entering the doubting phase, we simply stated ‘In this house, we believe in Santa.’”
Stacia Campbell of Evanston, Ill. has a 7-year-old son who’s beginning to doubt — he claims that Santa is “scientifically impossible” — and an 11-year-old who’s not so sure anymore “but I still want to believe, so I do.” Campbell intends to hold onto that magic as long as possible.
Kelly Walker of Easton, Pa. wrote a long note to her 10-year-old, explaining the reality “but adding how it’s everyone’s responsibility who knows the truth to do the good work of Santa, blah blah.” Her daughter did not take the news well. “She read the note while sitting on my lap and then promptly burst into tears,” Walker recalls. “I broke her heart, and mine, in one fell swoop. I’ve made a number of poor choices in life, but I would, without hesitation, say that telling my daughter the truth about Santa is my biggest parenting mistake.”
My own mother claims she never told me that Santa was fiction. “When you’d start in with the ‘Is Santa real’ questions, I’d just smile and say ‘What do you think?’ I never did give you an answer.”
Nothing felt especially helpful, so I went to the one authority I thought could give me the best guidance: Santa Claus.
It’s arguable whether he’s the same Santa Claus who delivers presents and has flying reindeer. But his name is legally Santa Claus. He was born Frank Pascuzzi, but the Long Island native had his name changed in 2012, and “Santa Claus” is listed on his driver’s license and credit cards. The 62-year-old Claus spends most of the Christmas season in full Santa garb, making public appearances and meeting with kids.
Claus claims he wasn’t personally traumatized after learning that Santa doesn’t technically exist, but it is a memory that stays with him. “I don’t know how old I was, but I received a present under the tree labeled from Santa,” he says. “When I opened it, it was things I already owned that somebody took out of my drawer and wrapped.”
His mother told him, “If you didn’t miss this stuff, you should try cleaning your room once in a while.” Claus says it changed him, but he’s not willing to admit that it meant Santa isn’t real. “I never had proof,” he says.
I asked how to break the news to my own son.
“It depends on how much you tell him,” Claus said. “You have to prove to him that Santa is inside each of us, that we’re all Santa’s helpers. That’s how Santa can be everywhere and deliver to everyone.”
Weirdly enough, Santa’s solution lines up perfectly with Leviton, who’s now 40 and living in Brooklyn. When I asked the childless author how he would (or wouldn’t) tell the truth about Santa to his own kids, he seemed as conflicted as his own mother did back in his youth.
“I’ve heard of parents who describe Santa as a spirit that possesses parents and makes them give gifts,” he told me. “That doesn’t count as a lie to me; it’s just naming the spirit of charity which does, in fact, sometimes possess us.
“I read a wonderful story about a parent who told their child that anyone can be a Santa if they give a surprise gift without taking credit. This also doesn’t read to me as a lie; it’s just identifying with a fictional character, like saying anybody can be a Scrooge or a Grinch.”
In other words, Santa is inside all of us. Apparently, that’s one belief that both a Jewish truth-teller and a guy who legally changed his name to Santa Claus can agree on.