this week's problem
Sarah's eight-year-old daughter has asked her if she believes in Santa. Should she lie and say 'Yes' or is it dishonest? How long should the child be kept in the dark, how should Sarah tell her the truth? How, when the child does know, can she be prevented from spoiling the story for her little sister?

Sarah's problem is that she sees the question about Father Christmas as a matter of truth vs lies. But it's not. It's a matter of reality vs fantasy, a very different kettle of fish. Sarah must know this at some level because, like most parents, she's not likely to have told her daughter about Father Christmas in the same tone of voice as she would tell her that Paris is the capital of France. Wreathed in smiles and secrecy, she will have talked about Santa with raised eyebrows, knowing chuckles, all clear messages that this is no black-and-white fact; rather, she is sharing in the complicity about a fantasy that is as much part of her child's life as the tooth fairy or, indeed, Batman and Robin.

Since her daughter is eight, and asking pertinent questions, it might be the time to reveal a little more of the truth while retaining some of the fantasy.

One answer could be: "I believe in the idea of Father Christmas." But "Sometimes Father Christmas has to ask mummies and daddies to help" isn't useful, since that implies he's a human being who has to delegate, more like a real-life business manager than a magician. Sarah's lucky that her daughter has a younger sister, because if the reality comes out, her daughter can maintain the fantasy for her little sister. Since there's nothing a child likes more than entering into a fantasy secret with its parents, to be grown-up and yet childlike at the same time, she's highly unlikely to blow the gaffe. Rather, it will be the older daughter who'll concoct extraordinarily satisfying answers to such questions as "But we have no chimney, how can he get down?", not to mention the impossible: "But how can he get round all the children in the world on the same night?"

Bruno Bettelheim, in A Good Enough Parent, devotes three chapters to magic in childhood and why the Father Christmas story shouldn't be blown until the time is right. He argues that Father Christmas is the only person whose gifts at Christmas are unconditional - no thank-you letters need to be written, and the child is not beholden to him in any way. He's also someone who gives only to children, never to adults, making children feel specially loved by a good force in the world.

There's no "right time" to tell children. Each develops at a different rate. Often a parent may feel the time has come to reveal all, only to find that the child has known for years and has been kindly going along with the pretence of believing out of good manners to his or her bewhiskered and red-coated dad. But Bettelheim argues that brutally telling children the reality when they don't want to hear it is cruel, a sign of parents wanting their kids to become intellectual and rational beings too young. He goes further and argues that children without magic in their childhoods may later become dependent on things such as astrology and the i Ching to guide them through life.

It's difficult to discuss the subject without a certain mawkishness creeping in, characterised by the famous "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" reply to a reader in the New York Sun in the late 19th century. But Sarah should remember that children's magical and fantastic lives are serious things and, since they're an adjunct of reality, not a denial of it, and are not really true or untrue, they shouldn't be blown away too hastily with adult logic.

Funnily enough, in this way there's no dichotomy between warning children of strange men bearing gifts, particularly in the middle of the night, particularly in bedrooms, and yet also encouraging them to welcome a visit from a jolly, bearded, red-faced figure who comes with a whole sack of presents on Christmas Eve.

readers' responses

Could someone tell me why we are all out here stuck in this freezing weather, working round the clock, making and wrapping presents and feeding and grooming the reindeer if there's no such person as Santa Claus?

Yours dumbfoundedly,

Chief Elf


In answer to the question "Is Father Christmas real?" or "Does Father Christmas exist?" or even "Do you believe in Father Christmas?" my response is that Father Christmas is a concept or principle, embodying the idea of making the effort of giving without automatically expecting to receive anything in return (except possibly thanks). People "being" Father Christmas can be seen in shopping malls - but also others, such as their parents or themselves, can also "be" Father Christmas, when they buy, or make, presents to give to friends and family.

So Father Christmas does exist - in us all, and I believe in "him".

George R Ross


I remember 13 years ago, when my son was nine, I had a feeling he might not believe in Father Christmas any more. His two older sisters said they thought he did not. Despite this, I put out the glass of refreshment and mince pie. My son came up to me and said, "I don't think Father Christmas is real, but I wish he was, so can I believe it tonight?" So we all enjoyed our "magical" Christmas Eve, believing for one more time.

Jill Fagg


I suffered dreadfully from having to pretend to believe in Father Christmas. I never did, but pretended to, to prevent my parents' hurt and disillusion. I never slept on Christmas night, but lay rigid with apprehension: would they dress up? Would they be able to tell I was awake? I couldn't discuss it with them, I couldn't risk talking to my younger sister. Luckily, we lived in the country, but twice I had the awful embarrassment of visiting Santa's grotto and being given a cardboard gift.

Yes, Sarah, it is dishonest. Tell them both that some people enjoy pretending Father Christmas exists. They will be just as pleased with the presents and possibly value your honesty.

Susan Evans


The fact that the little girl has asked Mummy whether she is a believer is a sure sign that some rotten toad has already poisoned her mind, but she wants to believe. Sarah should show a ready humour, and play the game. All games have rules, and the basic rule of this one is not to question the rules. In good time her daughter will happily continue the game with her mother for her younger sister's benefit. Where's the harm?

If it is dishonest to get children to believe this myth, as Sarah wonders, then it is good training for them. In life they will be asked to believe in all kinds of myths, such as "Get a good education and you have a job for life" or "Put your money in bricks and mortar" or shortly, no doubt, "Vote Tory for a Prosperous New Millennium".

Merry Christmas,

Keith Warren


next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My fiercely independent Aunt Diana, though 80, remains mentally alert and is in reasonable health. She's lived alone amid a jumble of heavy furniture, unused bric-a-brac, old newspapers, wardrobes of Fifties clothes and ancient garden tools in a house unmodernised for more than 20 years. She feels no need for gadgets like washing machines or showers, but in the past she has always been scrupulously clean and tidy. Her kitchen is, frankly, disgusting - badly washed-up plates, food past its sell-by date, unmopped spills and an increasingly bad smell. I respect her right to do as she likes but I worry about her health in her kitchen, and that she is losing respect in the community by going around in smelly clothes - I have offered to take clothes to the dry-cleaners but all offers of help are refused or dismissed as interference. Should I tackle her openly or wait till the social services call and everyone wonders how her family let her get into such a state?

Yours sincerely, Colin

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send your experiences or comments to me at the 'Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182 by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas you would like to share, let me know.