They believe in Barbie, Ben 10 and the Tooth Fairy. But how many children go to bed on Christmas Eve believing in their hearts that the toys they long for are really brought by a jolly, fat man in red and white?
Santa Claus, the magical figure who has dominated Christmas folklore for much of the last two centuries in the English-speaking world, is as omnipresent as ever in the commerce of Christmas, but surveys indicate he is beginning to lose his magical hold on children's imaginations.
Only six out of 10 children under 8 years old now believe in Santa Claus, one study in the U.K. found. Fewer than one in three parents now encourage their children to leave a stocking out for Santa, and only one in four leave a carrot out for his reindeer.
Children fed the Santa Claus story are wising up to the myth at an ever-earlier age, while parents are increasingly reluctant to indulge their children in an annual untruth that they fear may do more harm than good when the deceit is exposed.
Positive benefits, say psychologists
However, some psychologists argue that there can be positive benefits in preserving the Santa Claus tradition and allowing children to believe that, if they want to find presents at the end of their bed on Christmas Day morning, they'd better be good for goodness sake.
In a paper titled "What if Santa Died?" published in the Psychiatric Bulletin, U.K.-based psychiatrist Dr. Lynda Breen describes Santa Claus as a symbol of hope and says: "Belief in him teaches children the values of role models, family bonding and sharing as well as promoting cognitive beliefs."
She warns: "If families allow Santa and all his finery to fade into obscurity, we may deny future generations of a fantasy that may be valuable to their cognitive and social developments."
Santa Claus influences cognitive processes by encouraging children to use their imaginations and by inspiring them to write letters to him, telling him what they want for Christmas and often including goodwill wishes for the poor or sick, Breen argues.
"Children send millions of letters and drawings to the North Pole, testifying to their perceived sense of influence in the gift process," she said. "Writing encourages children to frame their thoughts. Some schools incorporate 'writing to Santa' as a pertinent class exercise.
"Stimulating these fantasies helps focus attention and concentration and may enhance ideals and creative thinking."
The use of imagination is particularly important for the development of children aged 3 to 5, Breen said.
Santa Claus can also develop into a magical friend, she said. "Children imagine Santa's home in the North Pole as a winter wonderland, full of talking snowmen, elves and flying reindeer," she said. "For some, Santa is a vivid companion. He epitomises nurturing and generosity, and this fantasy can help children feel loved and comforted."
He also epitomises what is often the biggest and most elaborately constructed untruth that parents inflict upon their children in their formative years. Anthropologist Joseph Bosco of Hong Kong's Chinese University remembers the moment, at the age of 7, when he learnt the truth about Santa Claus.
"I confronted my mother, and I said: 'You lied to me. You told me it was Santa Claus who brought the gifts,'" he said. "And she told me 'I didn't lie. You can get a gift at any time, but what makes the Christmas gifts special is Santa Claus. He does come - otherwise it would be just a toy'."
The inevitability of being found out and the distrust that may follow is what makes many modern parents decide not to encourage their children to put out stockings, glasses of sherries, mince pies and carrots for Santa Claus and his reindeer on Christmas Eve.
Power of inspirational fantasy
Some psychoanalysts believe Santa Claus is a "harmful lie that threatens a child's trust", Breen said, and that snatched away from them once they believe in him is akin to stealing a part of their innocence.
But she argued: "The modern parents must balance between teaching about reality without reducing the power of inspirational fantasy. A child's suspended belief in Santa Claus amounts to an act of faith, and it is unsurprising that children draw parallels between God and Santa."
In reality, however, the moment of truth can be a more disturbing experience for the parent than for the child. One study found that children who no longer believed in Santa Claus usually found out at the age of 7 and reported largely positive reactions, while their parents reported feeling sad at their children's discovery.
"While children do eventually relinquish their literal belief in Santa, their capacity for faith in a higher, transcendent power is not lost just because Santa proves to be mortal," Breen said.
Serious Incident Inguiry
Her argument is supported by Mark Salter, consultant psychiatrist at London's Homerton Hospital. "Our imagination is like any other part of our body - we use it, or we lose it," he said.
"If Santa Claus died, we would hold a Serious Incident Inquiry. And if we have any sense, we should ask the Tooth Fairy to chair it." – (Sapa)