Real TALK about Santa Claus

6 Ottawa parents talk to Tracey Tong about how they handle the often-tricky issue of jolly old Saint Nick.

In our very multicultural city, we’re as likely to find families who don’t celebrate Christmas as ones who do. And for those who do, Santa Claus – or Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or Sinterklaas – is only optional.

As Ottawa resident Jathina Blais puts it: “there are so many different ways to celebrate, and Santa has become something that lots of people interpret very differently.”

For many, Santa embodies the holiday season as much as strings of lights, trimming the tree and sipping apple cider/eggnog/hot chocolate by the fire. When their children reach that magical age when they believe that anything – even arrival of a certain portly, jolly, white-bearded man down the chimney or through a keyhole – is possible, parents and guardians have an important decision to make: will he or won’t he be a tradition in our house? How do we explain him to the children? How much, if anything, will he put under the tree? And what will we say when the kids ask if he’s real?

Parenting Times asked 16 local parents how they handle Santa in their households.

The approach: “Santa is part of the magic of Christmas”

“There’s so much magic in Christmas. I know how much I loved it as a child and would never want to take that away from my kid,” says Deanna Wright. “I’ll do Santa as long as it’s still magical for my child.”

Teri McGloin agrees. “We most certainly do Santa and we both did as children as well,” she says. “I feel kids these days still believe as much as they did in the past. My 10-year-old recently learned that we are actually Santa but he is excited to be part of the magic for his younger sisters.”

“Santa is part of the magic of Christmas,” says Melissa Hanna. “I believed when I was little and my kids believe now.”

She already has a plan for when her children start to question Santa’s existence.

It shows they are ready to understand the real meaning of Santa, Hanna says. “I will explain that Santa is kindness personified and doesn’t enter through the chimney, he really enters through our hearts.”

Katrina Hunter, who has teenagers and young kids, says: “We’ll do Santa until they don’t believe, and even then, we’ll continue just for fun.”

The approach: “Santa has a present limit”

“Santa for us has a present limit,” says McGloin. “Our basement tree is for Santa gifts. Santa leaves two gifts for each kid under that tree. And each kid gets a small tree of their own in their bedroom to decorate. Santa leaves a small gift under that tree as well so when they wake up, they know he came.”

Sheryl Louis “loves seeing the magic in the kids faces” when they wake up to find that Santa made a visit overnight.

Still, she makes sure the gift from Santa is reasonably priced – under $20. “I buy all the rest of the presents and let the kids know they are from me,” Louis says. “I don’t want my kid going to school and telling his classmates ‘Santa brought me an Xbox,’ meanwhile his classmate received a book or something.”

The approach: “The tradition… seemed to encourage commercialism”

Although Melissa Dimock believed in Santa as a child, the tradition held no real importance to her as an adult. 

“Honestly, (it) seemed to encourage consumerism,” says the mother of five children, ages 15, 13, 7, 2, and six months. That was the main reason Dimock didn’t introduce the concept of Santa with her older kids.

Another reason was that the kids went to an ethnically diverse school. “Santa was just one of those things that some kids celebrated in their homes, the same as some families celebrating Hanukkah or Diwali, etc.”

The family eventually started acknowledging Santa when Dimock’s second son asked if they could have Santa visit their house, too.

“We decided as a family that we would do that, and from that year on, Santa has left a small gift ($30 or so) for each child. We have always helped stuff each others’ stockings and the ‘big gift’ each year comes from us, the parents, and never Santa,” Dimock says.

“Santa is more of a footnote in our holiday celebrating.”

Jenna Wood wanted to avoid Santa in their house, because she worried it would become too much about the gifts.

But with the mentions of Santa at daycare and through advertising, they couldn’t avoid it. Their compromise: “At our house, Santa fills stockings and that’s it,” says the mother of a four-year-old and one-year-old. “We too try to keep the focus off gifts and more about time with family, giving to those less fortunate, etc. Those are kinda tough concepts for little ones to grasp though!”

The approach: “We don’t actively put Santa out there”

“We don’t actively put Santa out there,” says Cris Peever-Vo. “We never mention him and presents are always from the people who bought them. My kids love Christmas movies and TV specials that feature Santa, but they never really asked about him. It’s really a non-issue in our home.

“I come from a Francophone background, so we always celebrated le Réveillon, which pretty much had us kids up until way after midnight on the 24th, giving Santa little to no time to sneak into our homes and deliver presents. There were a few attempts to dress up family members as Santa in order to make it seem like he was delivering the presents while we were celebrating, but alas, we never really believed it was anyone other than Cousin Eric or Uncle Marc.

“I don’t ever remember feeling left out. My friends never really spoke about Santa or would show off the gifts they got specifically from him either.”

The approach: “I don’t definitively say if I believe in him around my son”

Leah Mulligan admits she’s “sort of wishy-washy” about Sinterklaas at her house.

“I often don’t definitively say one way or another if I believe in him around my son,” she says. “I say, ‘What do you believe?’ “I want him to engage in the magic of it all if he wants to.”

Mulligan says she is also mindful of the day he discovers the truth about Santa. “I hope it’s not as huge of a shock or traumatizing for him if the culture of Santa at home is pretty lax.”

Mulligan says stockings and a few gifts are from Santa, but the family focuses on other holiday traditions like baking, music, and spending time with family and friends.

The approach: “Christmas is magical enough without Santa”

“I grew up with my family doing Santa but I didn’t believe as a child,” says Francine Levesque. “Intellectually, I wasn’t convinced.”

Levesque says she is not inclined to introduce Santa into her home or make Christmas about consumerism.

“For me, Christmas is about a nice big dinner and family and spreading cheer,” she says. “The focus will be about what we can give to spread joy and cheer around us, not about Santa and what we want. Family will always give gifts for kids… but in my home, the focus is not going to be on that, so I just don’t see myself even mentioning Santa. Christmas is magical enough without it in my opinion.”

Amy Morris agrees. “I’d like to keep Christmas low-key and more about spending time as a family,” she says.

The approach: “He’s more like a mascot”

When Jess Külka was growing up, a gift from Santa was just a way of gifting anonymously, she says. “With my kids we don’t promote Santa as a real character. He’s more like a mascot.”

The approach: “The kids know the truth… but we all play along”

“My oldest has known since JK, when kids in his class told him their parents are Santa,” says Marnie Thomas. “We tried to keep it up for a couple years but when he flat out asked I told him but talked about the spirit of Christmas and not to spoil the fun of Santa (for) others. Kids like to talk, so they usually find out once they’re in school.”

Shel Conway’s kids, 6 and 8, “know the truth about Santa,” she says. “In fact, they’ve known for some years, but we all play along. We want to keep the fun going for the younger cousins,” she says.

Although many of today’s kids have access to the Internet, where they may discover the truth about Santa, Blais says “the pull towards believing and getting special gifts from Santa may prevent some kids from questioning Santa’s existence to their parents and guardians.”

She recalls her own childhood, after she found out about Santa. “I remember wanting the magic to continue, so I, as, the oldest, played along for a long time,” she says. “Santa was still fun after we all knew he wasn’t real.”

“I remember being old enough to realize Santa was actually orchestrated and pulled off by my parents but never actually asked if it was true or cared – because for years after, they still gave us gifts from Santa,” says Bonnie Thompson.

“My parents to this day have never admitted they were Santa!”