Why Kids Stop Believing in Santa at Age 8

Belief in Santa turns out to be as ephemeral as childhood itself.

It is no coincidence that most Santa-believing children lose their faith in the jolly bearded fellow at around age 8 or 9, finds a recent study that explains why this period marks an important shift in human development.

Kids at this time usually improve their conceptual abilities, developing a better understanding of underlying causes behind physical realities and the information that they receive. The period also marks the birth of skepticism, helping to explain why so many of us feel a loss of innocence and unquestioning joy at this time. Often the word "magic" is later used to describe the lost phase.

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Santa is all about magic, requiring incredible faith even to entertain the idea of his existence.

"Santa is purported to engage in activities that violate physical principles known even to infants, at least on an implicit level," wrote researchers Andrew Shtulman and Rachel InKyung Yoo in the study, published in the journal Cognitive Development. They are both in Occidental College's Department of Psychology.

"For instance," they added, "Santa violates our expectations about spatiotemporal continuity by visiting all the world's children in a single night; he violates expectations about containment by entering children's houses through their narrow chimneys; and he violates expectations about support by flying through the air on a wooden sleigh."

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Despite these obvious violations to known cause and effect, young children believe in Santa more strongly than they do in any other fantasy character, such as the Tooth Fairy.

One reason for this, according to the researchers, is that they hear a lot about the rosy-cheeked gift giver. Even children whose parents do not endorse the existence of Santa may still believe in him if they find the story appealing. For example, studies have found that many kids raised in Jewish or fundamentalist Christian households might still enjoy all things Santa, having learned of the story through friends, TV shows and more.

As Shtulman and Yoo explain, "Much of what we know about the world comes from the testimony of others. Few adults have dissected a human body or performed astronomical calculations, yet most still know that the liver is in the abdomen and the Earth orbits the sun."

They added, "One of the prerequisites of learning from testimony is that we must trust what others tell us, but such trust need not be blind."

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To better understand why children stop believing in Santa, the researchers analyzed hundreds of letters that kids aged 4 to 9 wrote to him. The scientists coded the questions as either being factual or conceptual in nature.

Factual questions sought info about the mundane aspects of Santa's existence, like his location or appearance, such as, "Did you get a new reindeer named Olive?" "How tall is the North Pole?"

Conceptual questions, on the other hand, probed the physical constraints that Santa is purported to violate. Only the older children tended to pose such queries, that included, "How do you fit through a chimney?" "How do you know I'm being bad?"

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Interestingly, there was an interim phase where kids just before just the skepticism crept in attempted to answer such questions themselves. They reasoned that chubby Santa could fit through chimneys if he took his coat off, for example. He could also see the world via cameras positioned all over the place. A million elves made it possible for him to make all of the toys. And one kid even reasoned that reindeer could fly because they are all attached to yarn held aloft by the presumably motored sleigh.

The determination that a developmental shift in thinking occurs at about age 8 to 9 negates earlier theories that children stop believing in Santa because the information they hear about him changes.

Try as some of us might, it sounds like belief in Santa is instead as ephemeral as childhood itself. As the authors shared, a friend of theirs "wholeheartedly encouraged her son to believe in Santa."

She likely left out the milk and cookies, hid gifts and did all that she could to keep her son's belief in Santa alive. That all seemed to work until she came upon a piece of wrapping paper with the following note scrawled on the back: "If Santa uses this paper, Mom is Santa!"

The figure now commonly known as Santa Claus has been a Christmastime icon for centuries, originating with an actual Christian saint, St. Nicholas. Saint Nicholas of Myra was born in what is now Turkey around 280 A.D. and dedicated his life to philanthropy. During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before his name day, December 6, children were given gifts in his honor. Shown here is a 12th-century fresco of St Nicholas of Myra from a church in Cyprus.

St. Nicholas' legacy of kindness and generosity elevated him to a legendary figure in Europe. St. Nicholas' Dutch nickname, Sinterklaas (a short version of Sint Nikolaas) evolved into the name many Americans now recognize, "Santa Claus." In England another icon known as Father Christmas emerged during the 16th century reign of Henry VIII. Father Christmas was known as a Yule-tide visitor who was often pictured as a large man in green or red robes lined with fur. Records suggests the two figures were combined in the 1870s. Here, an undated U.S. postcard titled "Christmas Greetings" shows a blue-robed and bearded Father Christmas.

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Rome eventually bumped St. Nicholas from the universal calendar of saints in 1969, but St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Father Christmas, a.k.a. Santa Claus had already long been secured in the hearts and minds of European and American folklore. Shown, a little boy in blue peers from behind a Santa mask in this drawing from 1887.

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One of the first American Santas was depicted as the "right jolly old elf" from Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also called "Twas the Night Before Christmas." This 1837 canvas of St. Nicholas by Robert Walter Weir may have been at least partly inspired by Moore's poem. It was included in

a recent collection of U.S. images of Santa Claus by the Smithsonian

to show how portrayals of this jolly old elf have changed over time.

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Many artists helped cement Santa as a chubby man in a red coat, including Thomas Nast, a cartoonist who drew for several publications. His 1890 book "Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race" featured many illustrations of Santa with a big belly. This is an 1881 illustration by Nast.

This Dec. 31, 1898 cover of "Judge" magazine (a weekly satirical U.S. magazine published from 1881 to 1947) is titled "The Chimney Is Too Small." The illustration refers to a controversial year when the United States took four colonies.

The cover of 1907 sheet music for the "Santa Claus" march composed by Fred Vokoun.

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An undated postcard of Santa on the rooftop with a bag full of toys.

In this postcard from 1915, Santa exits just in time, leaving a trail of gifts behind him.

A portly Santa rings a bell in this undated greeting card. In the 1920s, Coca Cola featured a fat jolly Santa in widespread ad campaigns to remind people they could drink their soda in winter time, as well as in summer.

Santa was even recruited during war time. Here, he's featured in a World War II-era War Bonds and stamps poster.

Santa and Mrs. Claus glide on candy cane skis in this illustration from the mid-century period. The first mention of a wife for Santa was in the 1849 short story "A Christmas Legend" by James Rees. The idea of a Mrs. Claus eventually found its way into several publications. The Mrs. Claus character probably became most widely known with the publishing of Katherine Lee Bates' 1889 poem "

Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.


A 1974 Time magazine cover entitled "Recession's Greetings" by artist Jack Davis features an uncharacteristically thin Santa.

Santa in a 1983 portrait by photographer Lyn Adams as part of the Appalshop, Inc. Photo Survey Project to document the Appalachian regions of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Santa, as he is commonly portrayed today.