Belief in Santa changes through generations

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: December 06, 2004

Americans are learning the truth about Santa at a much earlier age these days.

Blame the Internet, our cynical times or perhaps the increasing sophistication of youth. Whatever the reason, a survey of 1,022 people found that young adults typically came to a more complete understanding of Saint Nicholas at least a year earlier than did members of the baby-boom generation.

"The interest in Santa Claus isn't flagging. Just look at all of the movies and television shows being produced about him," said Jeff Guinn, publisher of "Autobiography of Santa Claus."

"But, as in every aspect of life, people are losing their innocence at a younger and younger age."

A poll sponsored by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that nearly two-thirds of adults in the study doubt that "children today are as likely to believe in Santa Claus" as when they were children.

Those fears seem justified considering the answers survey participants gave to the question: "How old were you when you learned the truth about Santa Claus." Adults younger than 25 said they came to a more complete awareness of Kris Kringle at an average age of 7.7, the youngest average for any age group in the poll.

The typical age for the loss of innocence increased steadily among older groups, reaching 8 among 25-to-34-year-olds and at least 8.7 years for 35-to-54-year-olds. The averages then dropped, slightly, among Americans born during the Great Depression, although nowhere near as low as among today's young adults.

"Our studies indicated that children go through a gradual series of changes in their beliefs over a period of two or three Christmases," said Carl Anderson of Austin, Texas, a licensed psychologist and professional storyteller who portrays Santa Claus. "Kids don't get as concerned about illogic or irrationalities as adults. But as they get older, they start letting go of that magical thinking and start having doubt."

Anderson said there has been little study into children's belief of Santa Claus, but psychologists in 1896 and 1977 did question school children in Lincoln, Neb., on the subject.

"The kids in 1896 said they had more of a belief in the supernatural aspects of the story of Santa Claus, while kids in 1977 were more believing in Santa as an actual human being," he said.

The survey, overall, found that childhood belief in the story of Saint Nick is widespread throughout American society. College-educated people living in affluent households came to a full understanding of Santa Claus at about the same time as did high-school graduates living in blue-collar families.

People who have no religious preferences, who describe themselves as "very liberal" or who are extremely well-educated tended to know the full story of Santa before their eighth birthday.

But some people keep their innocence far beyond the national average of 8.3 years of age. The survey found 23 percent who said they were 10 or older before they knew the complete story.

"Sometimes there will be a kid who is 9 or 10 years old who will come up and whisper in my ear: 'I know,' " Anderson said. "And sometimes a kid will say something like: 'Well, you've been very good to me over the years, but this may be the last time I will come to see you.' They can be very sweet, actually."

The survey found 62 percent said they doubt that children today are as likely to believe in Santa as were previous generations, a worry that is particularly high among the youngest adults in the poll.

The survey was conducted Oct. 3-13 at the Scripps Survey Research Center under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.