Santa Claus has come to town and he is taking notes, all the better to write his doctoral dissertation on how children feel when they find out that the jolly old elf is a fantasy.
This particular Santa is 33-year-old Carl Anderson, who is enchanting children at the Santa Monica Mall with his uncanny resemblance to St. Nicholas. The practicing psychotherapist and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas has been gathering information while playing Santa for the past three years.
"I didn't know what to expect the first year," Anderson said. "The thing that really struck me was the intensity with which children believe (in) and interact with Santa.
"For some, it is a very intimate experience. They will come up and hug your leg or give you a big hug or kiss. They start talking to you about whatever is going on in their lives--that they are going to be in the school play, that their parents are divorced or that their grandmother died.
"I started keeping a little notebook. Kids think I'm writing down what they want. Often, I write down their spontaneous comments, touching things they say. This year will be my fourth notebook."
Anderson plans to put his notebooks to good use. "I was curious as to what it would be like when they found out that there really is no Santa Claus," he said.
Anderson, who decided to make that the theme of his dissertation, expects to receive his doctorate in June. When he has completed his dissertation, which will be "quite academic," he plans to write a book combining the data from his study with things that boys and girls say to Santa.
He talked recently about what he and a team of interviewers learned from more than 50 children in Austin.
"Overall, the nice thing from my perspective is that kids put it (the truth about Santa) together by themselves," he said. "Some said they knew (intuitively) before they found out. Others said they had doubts. Some said they became suspicious when they saw different-looking Santas.
Clue in Toy Boxes
"Some said they found toy boxes in the closet after Christmas. By the time they actually find out (the truth), the idea has been there awhile."
Many children said they were tipped off by older brothers and sisters who said they told their younger siblings to spare them embarrassment when they started school and learned the cold, hard facts from classmates. More than half of the children said they pretended to believe after they learned the truth, either because they had younger brothers or sisters or because it was fun, Anderson said.
"Some said they were afraid that if they let their parents know that they knew the truth, they wouldn't get any presents from Santa Claus. Some were not sure how their parents would respond," Anderson said.
Some children told Anderson's interviewers that they hid their knowledge from their parents because they wanted to please them.
Anderson said the children in his study group lost their belief in Santa somewhere between their fifth and ninth birthdays, usually about age 7.
Some Enjoy Fantasy
Children who enjoyed fantasy seemed to hang on to their beliefs longer, Anderson said.
"Kids who are less involved in fantasy are more likely to figure it out and not even deal with the parents," he said.
Children were asked if they felt tricked or lied to when they found out the truth. "A lot said they felt tricked, but they didn't feel lied to. The few who felt lied to were the ones who were the most upset," Anderson said.
Anderson said his study and chats with children at Christmastime have made him believe that if children are happy and secure at home, the loss of the Santa myth does not overly disturb them. When asked if they will teach their own children to believe in Santa, 75% of the children in Anderson's study said they definitely will, 17% said they were not sure and 8% said no.
When asked how they would respond if their children asked whether Santa Claus is real, the children said that it would depend on the age of the inquirer and why they were asking.
Such sensitivity can be seen in older children who bring their little brothers and sisters to see Santa, he said.
Anderson also included parents in his study. Most said they promoted the fantasy and none felt guilty about doing so. A fourth of the parents said they felt anxious about telling a child the truth. Some said that when their children asked them about Santa, it was clear they already knew the truth. Although he has no children, Anderson said he would have no qualms about teaching his own children to believe in Santa Claus.
"I like make-believe. I might overdo it," he said.
Anderson said he may continue to do his annual Christmas job for some time.