Every year in late December, a large bearded man breaks into homes across the country and then escapes into the night. This man is Santa Claus, he is totally real, and he leaves gifts for good children and eats cookies and milk left out for him as payment.
Believing in Santa has historically been a big part of childhood in many places.
But believing in Santa is not, generally, a part of adulthood: a recent study found that children in America on average stop believing in Santa Claus at just over 8 years old. In some states, like Mississippi, kids believe in Santa until they’re ten—but in places like Nevada and Oregon, they stop believing when they’re seven.
Santa through the Ages
While connected with the Christian holiday of Christmas, Santa is more of a brand than a religious figure. Of course, he started out as St. Nick, a nice bishop who lived in what is now Turkey during Roman times. St. Nick is the patron saint of a diverse group of people: sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students. As an unmarried student who has experimented with archery, sailing, and brewing, I appreciate his work and contributions. But the most legendary story about St. Nick, and the origin of the Santa myth, is sort of screwed up from many perspectives.
One of the original stories goes like this:
Once upon a time, there were three poor young women who believed they would have to get into sex work to make ends meet. Then, St. Nick snuck into their houses at night and left golden balls. The fathers of these girls then sold the balls and used the money to pay the dowry for their daughters, putting them into good marriages and preventing them from having to become prostitutes.
The most iconic Christmas stocking gift back in the old days was an orange, because they are golden like those balls that St. Nick left with each of the women. Oranges were also special because they were hard to get back then; and since candy didn’t really exist like it does today, fruit was the closest thing they had to a treat.
St. Nick, after becoming immortal, then moved to the North Pole and became an industrialist, employing an obedient population of servant elves and reindeer. The US government recognizes him and tracks his movements on Christmas Eve, letting him get away with breaking all kinds of laws.
Belief in Santa
Some people never believed in Santa. “I didn’t, because we’re Jews,” said Zach Kennedy, a 20-year-old college student. About 10% of Americans, like Kennedy, never believed in Santa Claus. Kennedy told me about 10 years ago that believing in Santa was stupid, taking the side of that 10% of the U.S. population. That moment was somewhat of a pivotal one—I decided then that I needed to grow up. I no longer believed in ‘childish nonsense.’ I could think for myself and make my own decisions about what to believe. In fact, I recall feeling a little offended that my parents had lied to me for so long about Santa Claus.
Almost everybody on an AskReddit thread I consulted expressed similar feelings: A user going by the name of mean_police wrote, “I was eight… I got so pissed at my parents for lying to me, that I put all of my presents that year out into the hallway and refused to come out of my room to celebrate anymore. It was a rough time. I still hate Christmas.”
Most people on the thread realized Santa wasn’t real when they were 8 years old. It seems like that’s an important moment in life: third grade, the end of the early, part of childhood. You’re beginning to develop values, taste, and judgment: Santa Claus is the first thing that people call ‘BS’ on. Later, as teenagers, this escalates to sharing our opinions on party politics, capitalism, or society.
The Beauty of Santa
But Santa is very comfortable bullshit. He eats candy, he wants to give you presents. Quora user, Josh Manson, who claims to have “studied at the school of hard knocks,” writes quite poetically, “Jim (the name of a Santa Claus impersonator at the mall) is just the vessel that manifests Santa Claus. So it’s not Jim who talks with the kids. It’s Santa Claus. If it were Jim talking to the kids, the game would end, it would just be a guy in a big red suit. But that doesn’t happen. Santa Claus takes over Jim’s body for a while and the kids get to talk to Santa Claus and get their picture taken with Santa Claus.”
In Manson’s view, Santa Claus is a kind of spirit that exists in our hearts and in our minds. We might stop believing in the physical, literal reality of a sleigh and a North Pole factory, but there is a spiritual reality in “the game” we play for each other, and which parents have always played for their children. After all, “the game” is fun: like actors in a play, parents get to play Santa Claus and express love for their kids. And, “the game” of Santa allows us to be generous and jolly with one another during the coldest, darkest time of the year.
Maybe what really happens when we’re 8-years-old is we recognize different versions of reality.
There is the reality of the actual presents under the tree, which you can touch, see, and hold — and then there is the reality of Santa, which is like the reality of a parent’s love. When we stop believing in Santa, we learn to tell these two versions of reality apart.
Imagine, ten thousand years from now, when archeologists dig up the ruins of this civilization and find all the Santa ornaments and light installations and storefront window displays. They might believe that Santa Claus was some kind of idol to us—he does, after all, judge us as naughty or nice as a godly entity might. Believing in Santa is a fun activity that we all get something out of—even the lesson we learn when we stop believing in Santa.