Children are savvier than we thought, so why do so many of them believe in Father Christmas? Answering that question reveals a lot about child psychology, and even more about adults

Mind



16 December 2020

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The rituals we build around Santa may be more for our benefit than for our children’s

©Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

ROHAN KAPITÁNY was 7 when he started to question the existence of Santa Claus. Every Christmas, like many Australian kids, he had left out an apple and a carrot for the reindeer and a cold beer for the man himself – and every year, he found half-eaten snacks and an empty glass alongside a pile of presents the next day. But Kapitány had started having doubts. With his scepticism growing, he even hatched a plan to check his parents’ ATM receipts. “That was the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, of my belief in Santa,” he says.

Two decades later, Kapitány – now a psychologist at Keele University, UK – is investigating Father Christmas again. This time, he is probing the ways that children tell fact from fiction. He wants to know why some kids are more likely to believe in the supernatural than others, what makes Santa more plausible than other fictional figures and why we lie to our offspring in this way. The answers could have surprising implications for our understanding of young minds, conspiracy theorists and rituals.

As fairy-tale figures go, our modern Santa Claus is a rather recent invention. The real Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century AD, but it would take around 900 years for him to be recognised as a patron of children and the magical bearer of gifts. Even then, he was often portrayed as a fearsome figure. It was only in the 19th century …