In-laws or parents? A real or fake tree? Tell the truth about Santa or not? These are the annual dilemmas of the Christmas season.

The answer to the first two questions is "alternate from year to year," and the third is more difficult.Ask yourself, "Does perpetuating a myth hurt children? Will your children become distrustful when they learn their parents were encouraging them to believe in an imaginary person?"

"Most experts would answer in the negative," says Glen Jenson, family and human development specialist in the Utah State University College of Family Life.

"We all live in an imaginary world to some extent, and especially children. The joy that a child can receive from adhering to the notion of Santa Claus is well worth the few moments of disappointment and disillusionment that may come as the child grows older," Jenson says.

"Strong beliefs in Santa Claus in the tender years tend to foster feelings and traits of goodness, being helpful, giving to others and the bringing of joy and happiness. Hopefully, by the time the Santa Claus myth comes nearer to reality, children and youth will have developed in themselves some of the same traits that we attribute to Santa Claus."

Jenson says, for most children, the transition from belief to disbelief is neither harmful nor extremely disappointing. Most go through a period of suspecting that there is another side to the story for a period of months before complete disbelief happens.

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Laying aside the Santa Claus myth is part of society's "rites of passage." Surrendering the myth enables the child to join other adults in a conspiracy to make children happy, he says. As children grow older, lots of support is derived from their peers to accept the concept of Santa Claus being mythical.

A joking noncommittal attitude from the parents makes the transition easy and less painful.

By the time children are 7 or 8, they are likely ready to understand what Santa Claus really represents, that being the spirit of giving to others. After the truth is out, it is important for families to keep the notion of Santa alive in their family traditions, he says.

Jenson says the stockings all hanging in a row waiting for Santa to fill, or opening presents left by him, are all part of the memories that families need to maintain. These memories and traditions will do a lot to solidify families in the years to come.

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