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Some families celebrate Christmas without the Santa story

Child development expert: Skipping Santa can mean developing other meaningful traditions

CNN  — 

On December 24, so the old story goes, Santa Claus and his magical reindeer fly down from the North Pole with a toy-filled sleigh to leave gifts beneath the Christmas trees of good little children.

Except, of course, he doesn’t come to every house – even houses with perfectly charming children who love Christmas.

In an age of sharing red-faced, sobbing Santa photos on social media and an Elf on the Shelf overload, some parents simply put the kibosh on the jolly bearded fellow.

They’re not fun-hating, elf-slaying Christmas contrarians, they said. They celebrate. They just don’t tell their kids that Santa Claus is watching, that he’ll tiptoe into their homes on Christmas Eve or that he’ll reward them with gifts.

Their reasons vary: They don’t want to lie, they don’t want to give Santa credit for gifts or they don’t support the North Pole behavior police. Some said they don’t want to set their kids up for a hard fall when they learn the truth. Others said they don’t want to confuse religious celebrations with a marketable myth.

“I never uttered, ‘Santa isn’t real,’ ” said Myndee Corkern, a mother of three whose family doesn’t “do Santa.” “We just leave it out. It’s just pretend.”

But the parents who decide on a Santa-free celebration say their choice often doesn’t sit well with others.

Drawing a line in the snow

Kevin Cuthbertson has seen the eye rolls.

He and his wife have occasionally been accused of “robbing the joy of Christmas.” Other Santa-free parents he knows have heard even worse. He lives outside Atlanta and is the pastor of a Southern Baptist church, and although he loved receiving gifts from Santa as a kid, he struggled with the idea of sharing that story as he teaches about Jesus.

“We didn’t want to ride that line to where this thing they can’t see and can’t touch is true and this one is not true. ‘Are the other things they told us not true?’ ” said Cuthbertson, a father of six. “Let’s just play it safe and not do that.”

Generally, there’s no harm in going along with the Santa story, and no harm in skipping it, either, said Stephanie M. Wagner, a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center.

Young children, especially around ages 3 to 5, are in an intensely imaginative period of development, she said. Parents who decide against the Santa story should know he isn’t the only magic out there: Children will still hear monsters under the bed or see fairies in the flower garden.

“Pretend play explodes during this time. It’s really fun for them,” Wagner Said. “What is harmful is going to great lengths to prove Santa exists, and coming up with elaborate stories once they start questioning.”

If a kid seems skeptical of how Santa fits presents on his sleigh or how he gets into houses without chimneys, parents might want to ask children what they believe, she said. That child might be ready to give it up, or just take a step back from the hoopla, Wagner said, even if they’re still willing to share a Christmas wish with the Santa at the mall.

Corkern still remembers being 5 ½ and eagerly awaiting Santa’s arrival at the family Christmas party. She wasn’t emotionally ready when her older brother picked that moment to spill the big secret.

“I remember so vividly the devastation,” Corkern said. “I’m sure I still have fond memories, but all of them are tainted by the finding-out-the-truth moment.”

Corkern and her husband were in agreement: They wouldn’t lie, and they wouldn’t set their kids up for a hard fall. They’ll watch “The Santa Clause,” they’ll even snap a photo with Santa, but he’s like any other fictional character. Their kids get no presents from Santa, and they never talk about a naughty or nice list.

“I want them to be inherently good, not good because they might get something. Even if it’s less magical, I would rather that,” said Corkern, who wrote about her family’s Santa-less Christmas for NewOrleansMomsBlog, part of City Moms blog network. “I don’t think they’re missing out.”

Finding the magic

Wagner, of NYU Langone’s Child Study Center, doesn’t recommend setting up Santa as the all-knowing arbiter of good behavior. The promise or threat of Kris Kringle is not likely to lead to long-term behavior habits, she said.

“It sends the wrong message. Maybe you’re using it as a crutch during a hard month … you’re not going to see changes from that beyond Christmas,” Wagner said. After December, “it’s out of kids’ minds, and it’s not on parents’ minds.”

Stefanie Bagby, a mother of a 10-month-old, grew up with “Santa – wink, wink,” she said. She never believed he was real. But she remembers seeing adults pick up the phone to “call Santa” when a child acted up. It’s not something her parents would’ve done, and not something she’ll do, she said.

“Presents were more expression of joy and love, not because ‘You were so good you get this,’ ” said Bagby, who lives outside Atlanta. “You get presents whether you’re good or bad because we love you. That’s the Christmas story.”

Still, Bagby remembers her parents warning her not to say anything to others kids – even the teenage cousin who professed to still believe – and she’ll have the same talk with her child. Corkern and Cuthbertson agreed.

“I definitely want to be respectful … but I have my own convictions, as everyone does,” Corkern said. “I can’t raise my kids according to other people’s traditions.”

Wagner recommends families that celebrate Christmas start early with traditions that match their values. When the Santa secret is out, if it was ever there at all, the holiday won’t feel any less special.

“It might be they’re going to help make cookies, help get gifts ready from Santa for younger siblings, do some volunteer work,” Wagner said. “Whatever it is, think about, if we’re giving up one (tradition), how do we get others going that foster the same feeling?”

On Christmas Day, Corkern and her family will talk about Saint Nicholas and open presents beneath the tree. Despite their Santa-free stance, Corkern said, her 3-year-old has heard the story and seems to believe it. They won’t reject it, but they won’t prop it up, either.

Cuthbertson’s family will sing happy birthday to Jesus, share in freshly baked monkey bread and open gifts. Each of the six children will get a photo book of memories and moments from the past year, personally designed by his wife – no Santa needed.

This will be Bagby’s child’s first Christmas, so they’re creating their own traditions, fueled by their fondest memories of low-key, Santa-free, still magical holidays.

She recalls visiting family in Montana one year, far away from her home in Miami, where lights twinkled on palm trees and Santas wore board shorts. Far north, there were still no gifts form Santa, but there were jingle bells and Santa hats, hot cocoa and angels in the snow – real snow.

“The focus was on the joy and the love and the family,” she said. “Magic.”