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The Santa 'lie' really can give your kids trust issues

Bryanne is a freelance writer who lives in Southern California with her active-duty husband and their two teenage sons. She is a passionate human-rights activist and cultural enthusiast. In between writing and family life, Bryanne spends...

The surprising effect learning the truth about Santa has on us as grown-ups

When my husband and I first married almost 18 years ago, I was shocked to learn that he was adamantly against perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus. It turns out his past had shattered his love for good old Saint Nick.

I’d grown up believing in the jolly fat man and couldn’t wait to share that magic with my own children. Even though my husband had also grown up believing in Santa, he wouldn’t budge when I told him I wanted to share those same traditions with our own children.

When pressed for details, my husband told me the sad story of his Christmas undoing.

“I was 13 when I found out — way too old to believe in Santa. All my friends knew, but no one told me. One day some guy said Santa wasn’t real, and I argued with him. My mom didn’t even admit it then! She just mumbled that there was a Santa, but I could see people around us laughing. That’s when I knew the truth, and I felt dumb,” he shared.

The experience had scarred him. While I could understand the pain of embarrassment, it didn’t seem enough of an excuse to deny our children the years of joy they would have by believing in Saint Nick.

My childhood discovery of the truth had been far less jarring. I was 9, and my brother was 12. On Christmas morning we opened identical presents from Santa (they were sweaters), only to have our dad tell us we’d opened each other's gifts. Since he hadn’t even looked at the labels, I knew he must’ve been the one to wrap them, and forevermore I understood, without explanation or fanfare, that Santa wasn’t real.

As a new wife, I was persistent in my desire to incorporate Santa Claus into our children’s lives, and finally my husband caved. Even though nearly 18 years have passed and our sons have long learned the truth, my husband still has a bitter taste in his mouth when it comes to Santa.

More: Why I'll never force my kid to sit on Santa's lap

I recently asked friends and acquaintances how they discovered Santa wasn’t real and whether or not they initiated the same myth with their own children. I’d hoped this would help me understand my husband’s earlier misgivings about Mr. Claus.

I imagined that those who were especially hurt by the news would have reservations about teaching their children to love Santa Claus. It turns out I was wrong. It seemed that every parent I spoke to had rekindled the same traditions with which they were raised, even if they had been sad when they learned the truth.

While only a few parents shared stories of utter heartbreak when they found out the truth, most adults I asked seemed nonchalant about the whole ordeal.

Whether they learned the truth by finding the special wrapping paper only Santa used, having a sibling tell or seeing their parents bring the gifts from their hiding place, an overwhelming number of people shared that it wasn't traumatizing and that they gladly re-created the belief in Santa for their own children.

“I love the look on my kids’ faces,” one friend shared. Her sentiment was echoed by many others too.

Other parents shared that while they knew it was wrong to intentionally deceive their children, they felt the reward of seeing such joy on their children’s faces made the deception worthwhile.

I was beginning to think my husband had been an overly sensitive child, when a friend shared her own sad story of discovery. Her tale echoed what my husband had expressed and brought things into perspective for me.

More: My kids are terrified of Santa Claus, and it's all my fault

My friend explained that she, like my husband, had felt like the farce of Santa had gone on for too long. She credited her religious upbringing and conviction that lying was sinful as core to both her longstanding belief in Santa and her simultaneous devastation when she discovered her parents had been dishonest with her.

The worst was that in one brief conversation with her mother, she learned about Santa and every other holiday hero she’d ever loved. For her it was too much, too soon, and she developed trust issues with authority figures that linger to this day.

When I asked her if this influenced how she raised her own children, her answer was, “Yes.” 

Like my husband, she had decided Santa would not be in her parenting toolbox and opted instead to celebrate Christmas with all the beauty and love and none of the make-believe.

All these years, and I had failed to connect the dots. While my husband may have focused on his own embarrassment when telling his tale, what he really experienced was the realization that his parents — the people he trusted above all else — had lied to him. That trust made it easy for him to hold on to his innocence and belief for so long. By the time he found out the truth, he felt humiliated because he had been the last of his peers to know. Both his faith and his trust in his parents were broken that day.

The moral of the story for me is that the belief in Santa has the power to uplift as well as crush us. As parents, we need to approach this tradition with caution and recognize when our children may rely so deeply on a myth that recovering from the truth will leave them permanently wounded.

We can indulge in the fantasy without planting seeds for future therapy sessions in the process. That’s called balance.

More: Mom defends her 'disgusting' Christmas tree photo

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