The Big Debate: Should we put Santa Claus on the ‘naughty list’?

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

We asked a philosopher, an educational psychologist and an education lecturer to share their views on whether it’s time to tell children the truth…


Dr. James E. Mahon


Santa Claus is not a fictional character. Santa Claus is a lie character. There’s an important difference. Harry Potter is a fictional character. Children are not supposed to believe that Harry Potter exists. But children are supposed to believe Santa Claus exists. I think it is time that parents stopped lying to children about Santa Claus. Let’s turn Santa Claus into a fictional character. He can still appear on Christmas cards and wrapping paper, in store windows and even in shopping mall Christmas grottoes. Just not as someone who is supposed to be real.

Parents often say that Christmas would not be as magical a time for children without them believing in Santa Claus. I am not convinced that this is true. Children enjoy dressing up in costumes for Halloween, and this involves no deception. Children look forward to getting presents on their birthday, without any lies about who is giving them these presents. Most of the things that we love about Christmas – spending time with family and friends, the exchange of cards and gifts, the odd polar bear swim – do not involve telling lies. Indeed, if there were no Santa Clause lie, and just Santa Claus decorations, etc., it might be that these other fun aspects of Christmas would become more central.

I believe that children would be just as excited to choose presents for other children, and to write letters that accompany these presents, as part of, for example, The Salvation Army’s Christmas Present Appeal, as they are about sending letters to the North Pole, leaving out carrots for Rudolph and cake for Santa. There are plenty of charities that would be happy to take any Christmas leftovers. If it’s animals they wish to feed, over the break they can bring treats to the very real animals housed in shelters.

As long as Christmas continues to be the season in which parents lie to children, it will remain a tainted holiday. Each year of their childhood, kids are deceived, until their parents’ betrayal is revealed. Learning that it has been a lie all along can be traumatising. Maintaining this elaborate deception is no easy matter for parents, either. And it can be a strain on them, emotionally. By turning Santa Claus into a fictional character, we can liberate Christmas from its dark shadow and allow it to reach its potential.


Professor Chris Boyle


At this time of year, for many people, in the northern hemisphere it gets colder, darker, and sometimes a bit more magical. For many, there is something very reassuring about that as we head into the Christmas period. The main streets have festive lights, the shops have decorations, and the media talk about lots of positive stories. Of course, there are a lot of unhappy stories, but please let me indulge your mind with a focus on the niceties and the good feelings.

As an adult, you become aware of the change in songs being available and promoted to stream or to listen to. From November onwards, the Christmas tunes start to become more popular, and they are beautifully familiar. They contribute to the ‘magicalness’ of the period. Why do they seem to make you feel so warm during those dark foreboding winters? It is that longing for the enchanted period of childhood that, as adults, we have left far behind.

Alongside those wonderful feelings of a Christmas childhood, where every year was sledging and snowfalls (even though they weren’t that often), there is Santa Claus. Of course, In many different cultures, there are variations. Being able to believe in something magical like Santa is important to all of us. Magical storytelling forms part of our creative being. Why not believe in the magic of Santa as a child at Christmas? Believing that the world is dreamy and magical should be available to all children. Santa is a figure that provides that, at least for a while – and then children slowly and gradually are forced to give up the magic of Christmas as the reality creeps up like that needed bed blanket on a frosty Christmas Eve.

The wonder of Santa encourages children to use their imagination and creativity. It can even give parents that little bit of extra help in encouraging good behaviour. After all, nobody wants to be on the ‘naughty list’. As parents, being able to temper the demand for gifts while encouraging good deeds and generosity is a powerful learning opportunity.

Adults and older children can create the wonderment and excitement that they experienced. For many adults, Christmas is a time to relive or recreate happier memories and for a few weeks to go back into the warm blanket of childhood one more time.




When I asked my now 22-year-old son about their memories of Christmas, they very quickly replied ‘baking and icing honey biscuits’ and ‘having to keep an eye on Nan so she didn’t take a sip out of everybody’s glass’. Santa didn’t rate a mention.

Santa is the product of a rebranding campaign undertaken by the Coca Cola Company in the early 1930s. While they do not allege to have ‘invented’ Santa (so very gracious of them!), the company have claimed the character of the old man in a red suit and used the image successfully in marketing campaigns for decades. While it’s easy to take a cheerful approach towards the caricature that is Santa (as the Coca Cola ads tell us we should), there is a more serious side.

The very foundations of Santa are embedded in a dominant consumer culture. The premise is one that rewards those who are ‘nice’ and punishes those deemed as ‘naughty’. Back in the fourth century Saint Nicholas, whom history credits with the origins of Santa, took it upon himself to hand out gifts to all children in his village. Today the responsibility sits with parents and carers who are tasked with playing Santa.

Regardless of how well-behaved (and what does that even mean!) children are, their participation with Santa is determined by others. For some families, the decision to opt in or out is theirs, and based on religious, ethical, or other grounds. But for many the decision is not one they have the power to make. Family circumstances may prohibit gift giving, even when there is desire to do so. Children, already facing adversity, may be further ostracised. Without a visit from Santa, they are positioned as ‘naughty’. While other children who do wake to find a floor full of presents under the Christmas tree may not always adhere to general definition of ‘nice’. Yet they are rewarded. A spot on the ‘nice’ list is reserved for those from particular cultural and/or religious backgrounds, who have the financial means to be placed there.

For some the figure of Santa Claus retains the spiritual nostalgia of Saint Nicholas. For others, the expectation of being ‘Santa’ to young children can led to anxiety and tension. Perhaps it’s time to put the old, white man in a red suit, who no longer represents the diverse communities in which we live, onto the ‘naughty’ list. This would provide an opportunity to reimagine the original tenet of Saint Nicholas – generosity to all children –in a way that better reflects our world today.

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