Santa's Whiskers

Children Do

It is the young who must struggle with their belief. That’s 
part of the growing up process.  Some years ago the Yale
University Clinic of Child Development reported that “most
three-year-olds are aware of Santa long before they are
aware of God. The four-year-old accepts every detail of the
myth.  The five-year-old embraces Santa’s realism, clothes,
laugh and reindeer. The six-year-old believes with
emotional intensity. The reflective seven-year-old has
moments of skepticism . . . but adheres to his faith. At
eight the notion of Santa is more etherealized.  By ten,
generally abandoned.”

And, we’ve been studying that childhood transition for over
110 years.


At Nebraska University, Frances Duncombe, a 30-year-old student, conducted independent research for a Psychology course. She crafted a four-question survey and gathered responses from more than 1,500 kids, fourth-graders to eighth-graders. In July of that year she published her findings in the “North-Western Journal of Education.” It probably was the first academic study ever done on the psychology of Santa Claus.


Ludy T. Benjamin came across Duncombe's paper. “What jumped out at me was the detail of her methodology,” Benjamin said. “Even describing that she had done the study in February and March.” Benjamin, who taught psychology at Nebraska Wesleyan University at the time, grew fascinated by the study and enthralled by the trail Duncombe left behind. She didn't just record her findings, she laid out her entire process. “Everything that would allow us to replicate her study in 1977,” Benjamin said. And that's just what he did. With the help of two undergraduates, he posed the same questions Duncombe asked Lincoln (Nebraska) children in 1896 to Lincoln children in 1977.

The results, published in a 1979 issue of “Psychology Today”, identified some interesting differences. For one, kids in 1977 believed in Santa Claus, on average, six months longer than their earlier counterparts. And children in 1977 also described Santas as more human, less supernatural.


A “New York Times” poll found that 87% of American children between the ages of three and ten believe in Santa Claus, and 8% will say they saw him last year. The poll found that the younger children were, the more likely they were to believe. Every 3-year-old but only two-thirds of the 10-year-olds, among 261 children polled by telephone from Dec. 14 through 18, said they believed, Age the Significant Factor Age was the only element that mattered much.

In follow-up interviews, the more sophisticated-sounding 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds sometimes offered logical explanations for their non-belief. The New York Times poll was based on telephone interviews conducted December 14-18 with 261 children ages 3 through 10 around the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

2009 reported that ten percent of American households leave out milk and cookies for Santa Claus.


Psychologists Jacqueline Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the process of "magical thinking," or children's fantasy lives, and how kids learn to distinguish between what is real and what isn't. In one study involving 91 children, Dr. Woolley asked young kids if Santa was real. She found that 70% of 3-year-olds reported that Santa Claus was real. By age 5 kids' certainty about Santa grew, and Santa believers peaked at 83%. It wasn't until age 7 that belief in Santa declined. By 9, only a third believed in Santa.