ArticlePDF Available


In some ways, lying occupies a morally ambiguous space. While lies told knowingly for selfish purposes are for the most part unacceptable, there are also some generally accepted degrees of lying. A 'white lie' told to protect someone from being hurt is 'good'; for example, an adult comforting a child and telling them that their recently-deceased pet will go to a special place (animal heaven) is arguably ‘nicer’ than telling graphic truths. Indeed, the adult speaker may themselves believe this to be true as well.
1110 Vol 3 December 2016
Lying is a morally ambiguous exercise. While lies told
knowingly for selfish purposes are for the most part
unacceptable, there are also some generally acceptable
degrees of lying. A so-called white lie told to protect someone
from being hurt is good; for example, an adult comforting a
child and telling them that their recently deceased pet will
go to a special place (animal heaven) is arguably nicer than
telling graphic truths about its imminent re-entry into the
carbon cycle.
However, as we approach the festive season, where
does this leave the myth of Santa Claus and his propensity
to leave presents only for those children who have been
“nice”? It is a method of discipline used by many adults that
gains momentum closer to Christmas Day. In a mythology
more recently augmented in North America by the ever-
vigilant “Elf on the Shelf”, it is made clear that no child can
hide from the North Pole’s National Security Agency-style
vigilance—an altogether terrifying thing when considered
as an adult. Who among us could claim constant goodness
if watched at all times?
No children should be reading The Lancet Psychiatry, so we
can safely acknowledge that Santa Claus is a Christmas lie.
More than this, it is a collective lie on a global scale, one which
seems not only acceptable, but also necessary—woe betide
the person who tells a child that Santa is a lie before the child
works it out for themselves. Arguably, the so-called JFK effect
is of relevance here as we remember where we were when
the awful news filtered through. The first author remembers
being in a primary school assembly and hearing an older boy
utter the unforgettable words “it’s your parents”. That was it,
the JFK moment. Seeds are planted—Santa might not be real!
But adults are not meant to lie! However, you are aware that
they have, so as a child you also consider what else have they
lied about. The quandaries of suddenly realising that not all
accepted parental truths are that. If they are capable of lying
about something so special and magical, can they be relied
upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth,
which the children see them as up until that point (shared
with Google nowadays, of course).
Is the world so bad that we decide that it is better to
spend around ten 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? Speaking as former children, both authors
remember the abject disappointment when they found
out that this Christmas magic was in fact human based.
The spell was broken; the escape from reality that children
and adults can share for a few months had gone. Christmas
was never the same again. Morally, making children believe
in myths such as this has to be questioned. How many
denials are given to a child before the parent succumbs to
the societal inevitability of acknowledging that there is no
Santa? The question about whether it is better to have the
seven to ten years of believing in something magical and
fantastical instead of the grim reality of magic not existing
is an interesting one. Does lying to children in this way
affect them in ways that may not have been considered?
A child’s belief in Santa is complicated both in terms of
the saint on whom Santa is somewhat based, and the
religious nature of Christmas itself. There are different
versions of the exact history of St Nicholas (on whom Santa
Claus is based) but he was a bishop in the fourth century
in what is now Turkey. He was known for his kindness of
providing gifts to people who were in need. Woolley and
Ghossainy argue “children are, in many cases, skeptics,
albeit often misguided ones” (2013, p 3). Indeed, when
adults question a child’s seeming naivety in believing in
Santa, it is often forgotten that the adults have spent
significant time in creating the lie for their child:
“A particularly potent factor is cultural support—parental
testimony, the provision of evidence in favor of these
beings’ existence (eg, the money found under a child’s pillow
after losing a tooth), engagement in rituals (eg, leaving
out cookies and milk for Santa)—all these behaviors can
result in children overriding any potential biases toward
these entities they may have originally had” (Woolley and
Ghossainy, 2013, p 8).
It’s hard to be a skeptic when facing all the evidence to
the contrary (see also Shtulman and Yu, 2014), especially
when children need to believe what their parents tell them
in terms of basic survival. Why should children question
the parent who tells them to be careful touching a hot
stove or crossing the road, when they tell them about a
jolly man who apparently bends time and space to deliver
presents to every child in the world at Christmas? Children,
especially when they are younger, have “…a more general
tendency to assume that adults only talk about real things”
(Woolley and Ghossainy, 2013). However, most people will
have stories growing up of parents using the power of the
impossible to keep children in check, elucidated by Damien
Barr who described his upbringing near Glasgow in the
1980s. He states, “I’ve been warned that hell-red flames
flicker and dance deep below the Bing [Scottish word for
slag heap] and they’ll eat up wee boys who don’t do as
they’re told and stay away (Barr, 2013)”.
The logic of the improbable Christmas lie becomes
more and more of an impossibility as children get older.
Christmas becomes less magical and more obviously
based on the real life of the parents. There can be a great
imbalance, which becomes more striking as a child realises
A wonderful lie
Caia Image/Science Photo Library
Insight Vol 3 December 2016
their version of normal is not necessarily the same as
everyone else’s, where the types and quantity of presents
received are directly related to the socioeconomic status of
their parents. Parental income is the more obvious factor
than goodness. If Santa were real, surely he would be
equitable? Santa is clearly not a socialist!
Perhaps the biggest moral breach of the Christmas lie
comes with the fact that one day, the truth comes out.
Children must all find out eventually that their parents have
blatantly and consistently carried on a lie for a number of
years. Children may find out from a third party, or through
their parents getting bored of the make-believe and making
a mistake; both might affect the trust that exists between
child and parent. If adults have been lying about Santa, even
though it has usually been well intentioned, what else is a
lie? If Santa isn’t real, are fairies real? Is magic? Is God?
Further, if adults deride children for their belief in Santa,
where does that leave adults who ascribe to spiritual
movements that hinge on goddesses and other earth
magic? If children are not allowed to believe, why can
adults? And is it a good or a healthy thing to allow children
to have faith in supernatural beings in the first place?
Author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, created
controversy by suggesting that fairy tales may cause
children to lack creativity, but he also stated that learning
that Santa Claus is a tale may help children understand that
not all stories told by adults are true. Dawkins suggests that
this may promote a healthy skepticism in children.
The Christmas lie opens up complicated questions.
One way to answer them might be to look at the lie from
the perspective of the adults involved—what do they
get out of it? For example, the snacks children carefully
put together on Christmas Eve are often food the adults
themselves enjoy (the mince pies perhaps being preferable
to the carrots intended for the clean-eating reindeer). But
it’s not just that; adults who propagate the Santa Claus
myth are able to go back to a time when they believed that
magic was, indeed, possible.
By perpetrating the Christmas lie, one believes in the
possibility of a better place and time. Although Max Weber
wrote about “the disenchantment of the world”, a look
around the pop culture landscape today reveals enchantment
is very much alive and one could argue shows no sign
of abating. There is a persistence of fandom, in what are
designed as children’s stories, such as those of Harry Potter,
Star Wars, Doctor Who, well into adulthood. Adults taking
their children to a Star Wars convention as cover to dress up
as Han Solo or Princess Leia is a fairly common occurrence. It
seems that by returning to a fantasy world, there is a comfort
in being able to briefly re-enter childhood, which was a
magical experience for many. A time when imagination was
accepted and encouraged but which becomes lost in the
space and time of adulthood. The self-conscious recreation
of myth seems to be as popular as it ever was. Might it be
the case that the harshness of real life requires the creation
of something better, something to believe in, something to
hope for in the future or to return to a long lost childhood a
long time ago in a galaxy far far away...?
Christopher Boyle, Kathy McKay
University of Exeter, UK (CB) and University of New England,
Australia (KM)
Further reading
Maggie and Me
Damian Barr.
Anansi International, 2013.
Pp 256.
ISBN 9781408838068
Shtulman A, Yu RI. Children’s
understanding of physical
possibility constrains their belief
in Santa Claus.
Cognitive Development 2014;
34: 51–62
Woolley JD and Ghossainy M.
Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality
Distinction: Children as Naïve
Skeptics. Child Development 2013;
84: 1496–1510
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Far from being the uncritical believers young children have been portrayed as, children often exhibit skepticism toward the reality status of novel entities and events. This article reviews research on children's reality status judgments, testimony use, understanding of possibility, and religious cognition. When viewed from this new perspective it becomes apparent that when assessing reality status, children are as likely to doubt as they are to believe. It is suggested that immature metacognitive abilities are at the root of children's skepticism, specifically that an insufficient ability to evaluate the scope and relevance of one's knowledge leads to an overreliance on it in evaluating reality status. With development comes increasing ability to utilize a wider range of sources to inform reality status judgments.