Samuel Ronfard

Embracing holiday mythology a healthy cultural practice, says UTM researcher

Patricia Lonergan

As school lets out for the holidays, countless families are busy preparing to welcome Santa Claus into their homes to help bring the magic of the season alive for their children.

“It’s kind of incredible the amount of effort society puts into both generating the belief in Santa and maintaining the belief in Santa,” says U of T Mississauga assistant professor Samuel Ronfard, a cognitive development psychologist who studies how children reason about invisible entities.

Declaring himself “pro-Santa,” Ronfard explains the creation of Santa is a community effort. Not only do parents talk about Santa, they provide evidence of his existence, whether it’s partially eaten cookies or telltale footprints. Then there’s the post office elves who help Jolly St. Nick reply to the many letters from children. NORAD even keeps tabs on Santa’s whereabouts as he travels the globe, delivering gifts on Christmas eve.

Given the effort put into bringing Santa to life, it’s not surprising children believe, Ronfard says, adding he thinks Santa is an interesting experience.

Believing in the elusive elf, Ronfard continues, is not so different than believing that atoms or black holes exist, at least from a cognitive perspective. We can’t see them, but there’s evidence they are there.

Children often puzzle out the mystery of Santa for themselves around the age of eight, Ronfard says. That’s because as they get older, children’s conception of what is improbable and what is impossible changes. It leads them to become more skeptical about claims, and that skepticism, in turn, leads them to try to devise tests of Santa’s truth. That might mean staying up to watch who eats the cookies or seeing if Santa’s wrapping paper matches that from mom and dad.

“Children are not sponges,” Ronfard says. “They are active participants in their belief.”

And when they work it out for themselves, at least one study suggests it is parents who are sad to say goodbye to Santa.

“When we talk about fantasy and make-believe, there’s no evidence that any of it is bad,” Ronfard says. “Imagination, fantasy and make-believe are at the heart of so many things that adults and kids do.”

Adults and children love watching TV shows and being immersed in fantasy. Both adults and children are very good at distinguishing between fantasy and reality, Ronfard says, explaining his son loves to “pretend cook” and eat those fake foods, but knows it’s not real and that he’s instead building a world with his dad.

“Fantasy, storytelling and make-believe are core aspects of the human experience,” Ronfard says.

And Santa is an important cultural practice for a lot of families. It is part of an experience many have shared, Ronfard says, and it strengthens the bonds of community.

“For parents, what a joy to enter that world with their child,” Ronfard continues. “When in that world with your child you’re not somewhere else. You’re present, doing something you like. I think that’s good.”