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Once, during the middle of a long drive, my then-preschooler hit me with an unexpected question: "Mommy, is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer real?" I tried skirting the issue—"Well, honey, he lives with Santa at the North Pole"—to no avail: "But is he REAL?" She wasn't taking anything less than full commitment. I don't like the idea of not telling her the truth, but in the heat of the moment, sweating bullets, I caved: "Yes! Yes, he's real!"
Now, with the holidays on the horizon, I'm hoping to avoid anything that might spark her next round of grilling.
For families who opt in on the full Santa story—North Pole, elves, magic sleigh, hauling loot down chimneys (or through radiators)—protecting a child's belief in Christmas magic can be a tricky thing to negotiate. Save yourself a little angst by keeping these books and movies out of your holiday media rotation until you're ready to have The Talk about Jolly Old Saint Nick.
Even movies that wholeheartedly embrace the existence of Santa can get kids thinking (and asking questions) if some characters are doubters.
"A Very Goofy Christmas," age 3+. This short, which is included in the compilation Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas, is all about Goofy trying to convince his skeptical son, Max, that Santa is real ... without a resolution that's particularly convincing.
Yes, Virginia, age 4+. A young girl's belief in Santa is ridiculed in this animated tale. But it's ultimately sweet and heartwarming, if kids aren't distracted by Virginia's doubts.
The Santa Clause, age 5+. The movie begins with Santa taking a fatal fall (Santa dies! Ack!) off the main character's roof -- which leads to him inheriting the red suit and all that comes with it. It's a clever, fun idea, but many characters talk about Santa not being real.
Miracle on 34th Street, age 6+. The little girl at the heart of the story, Susan (Natalie Wood), at first doesn't believe in Santa -- which could lead to questions from kids—but ultimately she's proven wrong and becomes a stout believer in St. Nick.
The Polar Express, age 6+. Though in the end this a beautiful affirmation of the true meaning of the holiday, some kids may wonder why the main character, a little boy, is doubting Santa's existence on Christmas Eve (pictured above).
Elf, age 7+. No one has more Christmas spirit than Will Ferrell's Buddy the Elf, but that doesn't mean that other characters don't shake their head and roll their eyes at the notion of Santa. And kids talk about the possibility of parents being the ones behind the presents.
Rise of the Guardians, age 7+. This Santa isn't your typical jolly old elf. He's tough, he's tattooed, and he wields swords like a pro. Guardians is a gorgeous adventure, but its departure from tradition could get kids wondering.
Ernest Saves Christmas, age 8+. The storyline centers on an aging Santa (who's not dressed in the traditional red, so as to blend in) seeking out his replacement for the job, so it could raise questions about the St. Nick legend.
Gremlins, age 10+. This movie isn't intended for kids young enough to really want to believe in Santa, but just in case: Phoebe Cates' character gives a memorable speech about how she found out that Santa wasn't real.
Some kids might not be ready to read that Santa Claus isn't real—or be confused by Santa origin stories that vary from the traditional.
Little Santa, age 3+. This cute picture book imagines Santa's beginnings as a cheery little boy whose family is sick of the snowy North Pole and decides to move to Florida. It's creative, but it completely abandons the saintly, magical St. Nicholas origin story.
Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King: The Guardians, Book 1, age 7+. This illustrated chapter book (which is the first book in the series that inspired Rise of the Guardians, mentioned above) invents a heroic origin story for Santa Claus that's totally nontraditional. A young man named Nicholas St. North is a thief and a scoundrel who becomes a hero when the town of Santoff Claussen is threatened by the Nightmare King.
Superfudge, age 8+. In Chapter 10 of this third installment of the smart, funny Fudge series, older brother Peter tells his mom, "I don't think it's a good idea" to let little brother Fudge "go on believing in Santa." Mom responds that "sooner or later he'll have to learn that Santa is just an idea."
Santa, Are You for Real?, age 9+. A dad tells his questioning son the origin of the real St. Nicholas and the tradition of giving Christmas presents inspired by him. This picture book is for those who are ready to learn the truth -- and definitely not for those who are hanging on to the myth a little longer.
The True Meaning of Smekday, age 9+. Early in this story about a girl whose mom is abducted by invaded aliens (which inspired the movie Home), the narrator, Gratuity Tucci, makes a reference to her mom filling Gratuity's Christmas stocking, which could burst any Santa bubbles tweens are holding on to.