This time of year, parents ask psychologists what to do with Santa. One question has not been addressed until now: Do children harbor resentment or develop trust issues into adulthood from learning the truth about Santa Claus?

Western Carolina University’s Bruce Henderson, a professor of psychology, and Brian Visconti, a former student in psychology now with Appalachian Community Services in Murphy, decided to try to gain some insight.

Bruce Henderson

Bruce Henderson

Using a research study group, they tapped into what cognitive psychologists call “autobiographical memory,” the part of long-term memory that weaves personal experiences into the story of one’s identity. WCU undergraduate students provided narratives about childhood memories of Santa and when they learned the truth. Students also provided ratings of the vividness and affective tone of their memories.

Previous research indicates that most adolescents and adults retain few memories of their lives before the age of 7 or 8. Yet more than half of the 85 students in the WCU study reported their memories of finding out about Santa were “fairly clear” or “like yesterday.”

On average, the students remembered they were between 7 and 8 years old when they found out the truth about Santa. Most reported finding out from parents or a sibling, but about a quarter reported they figured it out for themselves.

Did the college students remember holding a grudge or being resentful, or were the memories negative? For the most part, the answer was no, said Henderson. The memories were negative for fewer than 10 percent, although one student recalled it “as a slap in the face.” Largely, the memories were positive, and the more vivid the memories, the more positive.

Henderson and Visconti believe there are several possibilities for many students for why the discovery of the truth about Santa did not create negative memories. “Many students recalled deriving the truth gradually, based on cues, such as finding presents from Santa in the closet before Christmas, telltale parent’s handwriting, or uneaten cookies by the tree,” Henderson said. “Possibly, the most important factor was, despite doubts, they would willfully suspend the truth, so that believing in Christmas magic made Christmas itself more magical and fun.”

While the memories were impossible to independently verify, Henderson and Visconti said the recollections were vivid, detailed and positive for a majority of the students. An explanation for this is that autobiographical memory is often marked off by mental landmarks. For example, older adults tend to remember more from their 20s than when they were 40 or 50, possibly because so many crucial events occur during that pivotal decade.

Perhaps for many young adults, memories surrounding a salient holiday then act as a memory landmark, Henderson and Visconti report. Research on autobiographical memory has shown that events that are distinctive, emotionally-positive and meaningful are better remembered. Events that are talked about repeatedly in family discussions also are better remembered.

So what to do with a questioning child during this holiday season? “Parent-generated elaborate scripts that go beyond the child’s own curiosity and inventions are probably not helpful,” Henderson said. “Finding out that Santa Claus is a historical character named Saint Nicholas is really more of a natural shift in thinking than a traumatic experience. Our data suggests that when they grow up, most kids will have positive memories of Santa Claus and remember details of that point in their childhood fondly. Very few will cry or pout or hold a grudge against their parents.”

For more information, contact Henderson at henderson@wcu.edu or 828-227-3784.