`Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the playground, talk was largely centred on an old man with a white beard and a penchant for climbing down chimneys.
The excited individuals around me were the very picture of childhood innocence and hope. Warming my hands on my plastic coffee mug, I reflected that there was no better place to be at Christmas than a primary school. My reverie, however, was cut short by a small cluster of children headed determinedly towards me.
"Miss, Brandon says Santa isn't real. He says it's your mum and dad who give you all the presents. Is that true?"
Before I could answer, Brandon stepped in, eager to back up his claim. "It is true, Miss," he said. "My brother told me. Last year, he saw my dad put the stocking on his bed, not Father Christmas."
This was damning evidence indeed. Things were not looking good for Santa. Gazing down at their worried faces, I knew I had a decision to make. But how far do you go to keep the fantasy alive for the believers and, as a teacher, is it naughty or nice to lie to your students about Father Christmas?
A falsehood on a grand scale
If you do lie, you won't be alone. From Coca-Cola to Hollywood by way of every retail outlet and scores of television commercials, the vast majority of Western society collaborates in the Santa myth. If it's OK for adults to claim their religious faith as "Jedi" (the 2011 census found that it was the seventh most popular religion in England and Wales), then surely it can't be morally wrong to agree with children that their presents arrive by reindeer and are dependent on good behaviour?
Harness the lemming effect
When it comes to Father Christmas, the believers in your primary school will far outnumber the sceptics. Research carried out in 2012 by psychologists at London Metropolitan University found that 60 per cent of three- to 10-year-olds believed in Santa. The proportion rose to 90 per cent for under-7s.
If you find the minority trying to disillusion others, then harness the support of the majority and let the lemming effect do the rest. If children want to believe in Santa, they will happily ignore any evidence to the contrary. When I was young, the fact that we had a wall-mounted gas fire and some of my presents had Toys R Us labels attached weren't nearly enough to persuade me that it was anyone but Father Christmas who delivered them.
If the Santa sceptics seem to be taking over, the 1990s film Miracle on 34th Street is your go-to resource. After 114 minutes of Richard Attenborough's twinkly eyed sincerity, even I'm ready to fling my stocking over the end of the bed and wait breathlessly for the sound of jingling bells come 24 December.
As a teacher, you often find yourself fielding difficult questions, and Christmas is no exception. "How does Santa get into my house when I live in a flat?" "Why doesn't he bring grown-ups presents?" "Why did my brother still get his presents when he's been naughty all year?" If the Santa naysayers are making you lose your cool this Yule, it's time to get some ridiculous answers ready to throw them off track.
This is probably easier if, like me, it's not the first time that you've told your students a lie. As a teacher, you get to speak on subjects with complete authority, so sometimes it takes children a while to work out that you are not being completely serious. Over the years, I've told them that I sleep under my desk, that I can hear what they are thinking, that my wall print of the Mona Lisa watches their every move and reports back to me, and that they become invisible when they get out of their chairs.
If children persist in pushing you towards a definitive declaration on the existence of Santa, try the old trick of answering a question with another question. If they say, "Father Christmas isn't real, is he?", respond with, "Isn't he? Then who ate the mince pie I left out for him on Christmas Eve?"
Don't make assumptions based on age
You can't take it for granted that just because children are older or seem streetwise, they don't believe in Santa. Last year, after a Christmas visit from a professional storyteller, I overheard one of our toughest 11- year-old boys tell another, "That woman was talking a load of rubbish. She said Santa had pixies helping him. Everyone knows Santa's got elves."
Remember that many of your children won't have the easiest home lives. If there's anything you can do to keep the magic of Christmas alive for them then you would be crackers not to try to ensure that, for one more year at least, Santa will be coming to town.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands, England
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