Raising Richmond: Christmas without Santa FAQ

Answers to our most frequently-asked-questions about celebrating the season sans the Big Man in Red.

It seems that this time of year, no matter where we go, people only have one question for our son JR:

What do you want Santa to bring you this year?

Not a crazy question. I mean, he’s a five-year-old boy, so it’s reasonable to assume he’s got Ol’ St. Nick on the brain. It’s also reasonable that most people seem pretty taken aback when he responds with a noncommittal shrug or when (on the days he’s feeling bold) he laughs and says, “Nothing! Santa’s not real!”

It’s true. Our precious little poppet does not believe in Santa Claus–and not because he spotted us filling his stocking and tucking presents under the tree last year. The Catrow Family (at least this branch of it) doesn’t “do” Santa.1

Since this revelation often brings up a lot of questions–both from people completely appalled with this particular parenting choice and from those simply curious about our approach2–I thought it would be helpful to do a little FAQ on the subject. So please, allow me to shed a little light on how (and why) our family does Christmas without Santa…

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You don’t do Santa? Why the heck not?

It comes down to three things…

1) Just as we want JR to understand that money doesn’t grow on trees, he also needs to understand that a present doesn’t just appear under your tree or in your stocking; someone either worked for the money to buy it or used his/her time and talents to make it. I believe that framing gifts in such a way is key in cultivating gratitude in our son. I also think it’s helped keep our family’s gift-giving relatively low-key. JR knows his parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are the ones buying or making his gifts, so we don’t get presented with a long, outrageous wish list each year. He typically asks for one or two totally reasonable things and is thrilled with whatever ends up under the tree.

2) We prefer to be straight with JR–in age appropriate ways, of course, but straight nonetheless. When he asks hard or uncomfortable questions, we tell him the truth in a way that his five-year-old brain can grok (or try to, anyway). So it just doesn’t sit right with us to push honesty in any and all situations but then participate in a big made-up story that isn’t consistent with what we do and believe the rest of the year.

3) My husband and I are Christians. At just over five-years-old, JR hasn’t explicitly expressed his feelings on the matter either way, but he knows that Christmas is the time of year that we celebrate Jesus’s birth. As my husband explained a few years back, “The Christmas season is so steeped in symbols, and we want those symbols to jibe with what we do and believe the rest of the year. […] When presented with the choice of celebrating Jesus or celebrating a man who brings presents, I want to make sure we choose what best fits our beliefs. Similarly, I don’t want JR to learn that the amount of love he gets from us depends on his annual level of naughty/nice—we want him to learn that we’ll love him unconditionally even if he sucks. That’s not to say that you can’t do both, Jesus and Santa, successfully. We’ve just decided not to.”

How did you tell your son the truth about Santa?

There wasn’t a moment when we sat JR down and filled him in on the whole Santa situation. To be honest, we just don’t talk about Santa all that much at our house, so he’s sort of a non-issue. When JR picked up on that fact that this Santa guy was “a thing” with some of his friends and started asking questions from time to time, we’d just tell him that Santa was a tradition that some families “did” at Christmastime. And…that’s kind of it. It didn’t (or hasn’t) required further explanation.

Is your house a No Santa Zone?

Nope. We read books about Santa, watch movies with Santa in them, you name it. We just treat them as what they are: sweet stories that make people feel good.

So what does your son think about Santa?

JR loves Santa, just not in an “OMG! IT IS HIM!” kind of way. When we spot Santa in the mall or see him in a movie, JR reacts in the same way he does when he sees, say, Nutzy at a baseball game or someone dressed up as Spider-man at a birthday party: he points and waves like a crazy man and enjoys the excitement right along with everyone else. For him, Santa is just a fun character that is part of the holiday season.

Don’t you think he feels left out?

I did worry about that at first, but we’re seeing more and more families in our circle of friends3 opting to not do Santa–or to at least going with a more toned-down version of what a lot of us experienced growing up. Honestly, Santa is just not ubiquitous enough in our holiday traditions for it to be a big “me versus them” sort of situation.

But what about the magic?

Trust me, Santa is not the only way to make the holiday season magical and exciting for your kids. Right now, our family’s Christmas traditions seem to be enough for JR as he awaits the Big Day–going to Lewis Ginter to see the lights; decorating the tree; hanging up the ornaments on his Advent Jesse tree; watching Elf; eating donuts and singing Christmas carols with the sweet old ladies at Randolph Place Senior Housing Community.4 I promise you, he is properly and thoroughly stoked about Christmas from Thanksgiving Day and on to the New Year–just like any regular pre-kindergartener.

Is your kid going to ruin it for my kid?

This is, hands down, the question we get asked most often when people find out we don’t “do” Santa in our house. Which I totally get! They’re your kids, and if Santa is part of your Christmas thang, I do not judge you nor do I want my kid to muck things up for you and your little ones. So you can rest assured that my husband and I are doing our best to keep that from happening.5 After many, many, many conversations, JR understands that 1) some kids believe in Santa while other kids don’t, and 2) it is not his responsibility to break the news to those who do. If you ask him point-blank if Santa is real, he’ll usually6 say “no,” but it’s not like he’s going to run through the throngs of children waiting to see Santa at CMoR bellowing, “IT’S ALL FAKE, KIDS. SHUT IT DOWN.”

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  1. Or the Easter Bunny. We haven’t had to consider the Tooth Fairy yet. 
  2. The former tend to be way more vocal than the latter. 
  3. Religious and not. 
  4. Let’s be honest: it’s more about the donuts than the singing with the ladies. 
  5. There was one incident in preschool when JR told a couple kids that Santa wasn’t real–an incident of which I was informed of during a PTA meeting in front of several other parents from his class. I apologized and promised to speak to JR about it (which I did), but I’m still kinda pissed that I essentially got publicly called out for a parenting choice that is just as valid as everyone else’s. 
  6. Sometimes he’ll randomly announce that he thinks Santa is real. I usually just smile or respond with a simple, “OK, bud.” 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Jessica Reilly keltonic on said:

    I like this Valerie! We’ve been talking about what we’ll tell Kade next year. Neither Johnny nor myself grew up believing in Santa, it was pretty much the same way you all are handling it and I think this is what we’ll do too. We want Jesus to be seen during Christmas time :)

  2. Kelly on said:

    Totally agree! Plus, we don’t have a chimney, so that also helped make the no-Santa decision for us.

  3. Thanks, Reilly! It’s funny because Ross and I both grow up believing in Santa, but we both sort of landed in the same place as far whether we’d continue to tradition in our family.

  4. Caroline on said:

    Very interesting. From following your blogs I knew you all didn’t “do” Santa, but I was always very confused as to how you managed his dealing with other kids. Ironically, it makes sense now, as it’s the way we deal with religion/Jesus/god/whatever. We’re atheists. (So in our house christmas is about the magic of Santa. Tradition, giving, and family top the list as well, but presents are about magical elves and Santa.) I always worried about how we would explain our views religion while making sure our children were respectful of others beliefs, but it hasn’t been an issue. We’ve just said that Jesus/God is an important part of some people’s families, but not a part of ours. I know someday I’ll have to go into more detail, but for now that makes sense to a 6 year old.

  5. Santa was just such a big part of my appreciation for the power of imagination and the importance of belief growing up (and now) that I couldn’t imagine NOT raising my kids with it. When I was 7 I wrote my first song about Santa and have released about 10 albums worth of original music since then. Also, the chance to differentiate between Santa as part of the season and Jesus helped me to strengthen my ability to separate belief and conviction. Like, my BELIEF in Santa was different than my KNOWLEDGE of Christ. It helped me to understand that Jesus is Jesus whether people believe in him or not, but Santa maintains his power and existence only if children believe in him.
    As our kids get older we’re also going to share the true story of St. Nicholas of Myra so that our kids, as they come to realize a fat man does break into our house once a year, also realize that the mythology is based in one man’s true following of Christ’s call to a rich young ruler to “sell what you have and give to the poor”.

  6. Matt, I think you give good examples of making multiple views work. Go with it, guy!

  7. I think I’m going to just concede to my wife on this one since she has stronger feelings (and traditions) around Santa than I do/did.

    But whichever way a parent falls on this, I think the worry about Santa getting “spoiled” by a kid who doesn’t believe in him is overblown (and used unfairly to make the no-Santa people feel guilty). Santa could be spoiled just as easily (and more likely) by some kid who *used* to believe in him. There’s a lot more of those kids around.

  8. Whenever someone “spoils” Santa for my kids I’ll be excited because then I can teach them about another important thing…heresy.

  9. Ernie mathews on said:

    Thanks Valerie. Engineers cannot be as eloquent as you are about things non-scientific so from now on when someone asks me about our santa-free Christmas, I will have your business cards on hand. Please mail me some and I will send you maple syrup.

  10. Stephanie on said:

    I love this, Valerie. We’re not ‘doing’ santa because we’re Jewish and stuff, but even if we were Christmas types, we would probably opt out of Santa for similar reasons. It’s hard enough, after 8 nights of presents, to get her to understand that every time you light a candle, you don’t automatically get new toys.

    It’s hard to ‘DO’ December differently than the people on tv, at school, in your peer group, or wherever, no matter what the reason, and I think it’s actually a good opportunity to show our kids that you don’t have to be just like everyone else to have fun.

  11. Tiffanie on said:

    My parents got a call from my preschool teacher when I was 3, asking them to please get me to stop truth-telling about Santa. We don’t do Santa for the same reasons as you and Ross, but it is tricky to keep my rule-following, truth-telling first-born to keep a lid on it.

  12. Rebecca on said:

    My kids are in high school now and we never did Santa. They never missed a beat because of it. We are also weird because our kids only get 4 gifts, a want, wear, need and read.

  13. Amanda on said:

    Thanks so much for this. Santa was one of my least favorite parts of Christmas growing up–I’ve always been the conspiracy theory debunker type. I’m pretty sure I was five when I decided it was a charade. My mom however has pushed the Santa thing very hard on Louie, and it seems to make her so happy, so I try to walk the line between Santa and no Santa. When we talk about Santa at home we do it in a very “its a sweet tradition” way like you do. I’m hoping he grows up seeing Santa as a special thing he does with Grandma, a representation of generosity, and a very, very small part of a beautiful holiday.

  14. Susan Howson on said:

    You’re making a lot of assumptions here that Santa isn’t real. Just because you can’t see or hear him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. I do not appreciate your smug tone. Typical aclausiest.

  15. Chris Lacroix on said:

    I’ve always been on the fence about straight up lying to my kid about something, but to me, i want do it for the same reasons that Matt F. does. Growing up, my parents had a balance of 1-2 gifts from santa, and the rest was from them. That way we knew money didn’t grow on trees, and that mom and dad worked hard for what we received. They would typically hide one present and after they gave us their gifts, there was always the “where did this come from?!?!” moment. It’s unreal what that power of imagination does to kids; something physically impossible somehow happening.

  16. Meredith on said:

    Funny, this is the same way we feel about religion in our house.

  17. Santa on said:

    I was there for all of your childhoods and you throw me aside like a used Kleenex. Meanwhile, you are forcing your children to live in a dull, boring world where they have to start budgeting at 3 years old and grow up faster than even you did. I am a cultural and global tradition, don’t refer to me as a “lie”! Lastly, on the Christian front, I’m a freakin Saint! Merry Christmas to all, except those that wish to destroy me, you will not be seeing me this year, I wouldn’t waste my coal on you!

  18. I like the roll-over footnotes, thanks!

  19. I Believe In Santa on said:

    Susan Howson…Thank you…..I am a firm believer that Santa does exist. He exists in all of us that hold the joy of Christmas in our hearts. Just because you can’t see him, does not mean his “spirit” is not there. (If I am not mistaken, there are other things that we believe in that we can’t see.) Some 17 years ago while walking through the mall looking at Christmas decorations, the writer of the column asked me (her mother) what I wanted for Christmas. Being divorced for a few years, I told her I wanted Santa to bring me a new boyfriend. Well, Santa must have overheard me because about two weeks later I met the gentleman that later became her step-father. Go figure……I am a grandmother and to this day, I love to go to the Christmas Shop at the Yankee Candle Factory during the Christmas season and listen to Santa read “The Night Before Christmas” to the kids. Last year while observing just this event, I was standing outside of Santa’s Shop holding on to my shopping cart and suddenly felt something warm on my hand. It was tears. Tears of pure joy. Like I explained to the writer of this column’s brother when he was struggling with the question of Santa. Santa is in all of us. We are all part of the magic. Merry Christmas……

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