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Virginia Was A Little Old To Still Believe In Santa

In 1897, an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the editor of the New York Sun to ask whether Santa Claus was real. Her friends had lost faith in the fat man, and Virginia reasoned that the Sun, which her father trusted implicitly, would tell her the truth and settle the matter once and for all.

The Sun promptly lied to her.

But what’s really interesting about this story is that Virginia O’Hanlon was a bit of an outlier, clinging to her belief in Santa a little longer than most kids, relative to both her peers and her great-great-grandchildren. In 1896, a study of 1,500 children found that the mean age of loss of belief in Santa was 6.35 years. Nearly 100 years later, in 1987, the mean age was 7.01.1

There have since been numerous studies on children’s belief in the imaginary — including a couple of papers that tested the tenacity of belief in the Candy Witch, a Halloween-based character the researchers invented for their study. All those papers have fit the same general pattern: Belief in imaginary beings peaks around age 4 and drops off precipitously by the time a kid turns 8.2

But don’t take that as proof that humans just naturally become less credulous with age. One of the weird things about the Candy Witch papers is the degree to which older kids, those in the 6- to 7-year-old range, could be convinced that the Witch was real. There’s a lot we still don’t know about what makes humans likely to believe in things that don’t exist and whether it’s reasonable to say that there’s a pinpoint-able age at which those beliefs drop off.

Footnotes

  1. In 2002, there was a study of Santa belief among pediatric hospital inpatients. There, the tipping point for losing belief skewed a little older — about 8 — though it’s hard to say whether that was representative of the beliefs of children as a whole.

  2. Important caveat: Almost all this data comes from white, Protestant, middle-class American children.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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