GENEVA — The ritual has been respected for 60 years now. Each December, Switzerland's official postal service assigns five employees to respond to thousands of letters from children addressed to Santa Claus. "We send them a note and a present," says Nathalie Dérobert, spokeswoman for La Poste. And yes, to maintain the magic, the letters purport to come from Santa’s helpers.

The letters come from all over Switzerland, even some from abroad, and they are increasing — an estimated 18,700 are expected this year. While everything else seems to have gone digital, the handwritten letter to Santa Claus is a tradition that is still holding strong. Of course, many of the kids' letters have been prompted and encouraged by their parents who tell of a fat man dressed in red ready to twist his belly down the chimney to spread goodies around the Christmas tree. The ritual and family joy is at the center of the holiday warmth in households around the world.

But an article published last month in the scientific review The Lancet Psychiatry just broke the atmosphere. According to Chris Boyle, a psychology researcher at Exeter University, and Kathy McKay, clinical psychologist at the University of New England (Australia), lying to children about the Santa’s Claus existence risks to undermine their confidence on the day that they discover the truth. Lying about Santa, the study concludes, exposes children to an "abject deception."

The lie of Santa Claus is a lie so sophisticated and constant between parents and children that, if their relation is fragile, it could amount to simply too much disillusionment. "If parents can lie in such a convincing way, and for such a long period of time, children risk asking themselves what else they can lie about," says McKay.

Indeed, some still hold onto a bitter memory, like Josephine: "My parents made me believe until I was 10 years old. At school, I was mocked, but I defended Santa Claus because my parents couldn’t stop lying to me," she recalled. "When they confessed to the hoax, I blamed them for being ridiculed."

Modern myth

And what about that famous universal magic of Christmas? Well, don't ask those who remember family conflicts as soon as the garlands flash in department stores — or whenever the man with the white beard appears. "The interest in Santa Claus resides in the sharing of emotions. But if it wakes up painful memories, we can do without it," says Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, a child psychiatrist founder of the Brazelton Center at the Grangettes Clinic in Geneva.

Writing a letter to "Santa" — Photo: Chris Parfitt

Bruschweiler-Stern also notes that some parents keeping the Santa lie going from "an unconscious desire to cling to their own childhood. This fable must remain a game, and as soon as the child doubts, it is useless to maintain falsehood."

It's never simple to tell the hard truth, especially when the entire world is still busy feeding this legend. Since last year, Google allows children to follow Santa Claus’ route "in real time" with a "live" inventory of the distribution of gifts. The U.S. army also created a dedicated Santa site and swears that its airspace will always welcome the sled and reindeer. Even the renown French child psychiatrist Françoise Dolto participated in the mystification. In 1962, when the French post office set up its own Santa Claus service, she penned the response addressed to toddlers: "My dear child, your nice letter made me very happy. I am sending you my portrait. […] I do not know if I will be able to bring you all that you have asked me to. I will try, but I am very old and sometimes I get it wrong. You must forgive me. Be wise, work well. I’m sending you a big kiss, Santa Claus." Beyond the lie, there is another potential ill effect of the fat man in red-and-white: Children are told that an irreproachable conduct is necessary to get the gifts. It is, according to the recent study by Boyle and Mckay, a kind of emotional blackmail.

Dr. François Hentsch, a doctor in the psychiatric department of children and adolescents at the University of Geneva, brushes off the research: "In the ideal the parents should have a sufficient authority to not brand Santa Claus as a threat. Also, pretending that one should never lie to children is silly," Hentsch says. "Santa Claus makes up a part of the altruistic lies, which are very different from reassuring lies that we sometimes tell children in case of parenting distress, such as grief or depression."

Last year, the Spanish subsidiary of Ikea made a video asking kids to write two letters with their Christmas wishes: one to Santa Claus, the other to their parents. In the first, they asked for the moon: the latest Wii game console, unicorns that fly, and the like. In the second, they asked only for more family time. The latter is a gift that, unfortunately, no fictitious fat man could slip into the shoes of busy parents to fulfill. It is here that the myth becomes useful, according to the philosopher Gilles Vervisch, author of How I Could Believe in Santa Claus?.

"Santa Claus is a metaphor for illusion. This lie enables us to describe to a child a marvelous world, before learning about disappointment. The child then discovers that certainties are misleading, and that parents, these liars, are not gods. That is what allows them to begin to find their own independence." So this lie of Santa Claus? It is perhaps the first philosophy lesson children ever get — not a bad gift at all.


See more from Culture / Society here