Believing in Santa Claus can enhance creativity and imagination in children while also reminding kids -- and kids at heart -- about generosity and joy, researchers find.
"Our great tradition, Santa Claus, reminds us that Christmas is, in fact, a time of joy and plenitude just when the gray, oppressive skies of winter proclaim the opposite," Frank Riga, emeritus professor of English at Canisius College, said in a press release. "Santa Claus, finally, knows little or nothing of credit cards and shopping sprees, but he does know the pleasure in giving and the joy of others' joy."
The story of Santa originated with an actual Christian saint from Turkey, Riga noted. As the saint's real life's story merged with myth, he served as an inspiration for cultures all over the world.
"St. Nicholas was so well-liked that before Rome bumped him from the universal calendar of saints in 1969, he had become the patron of children, students, Russia, bankers, sailors" and more, Riga said. "This democratic appeal of the good saint attests to his generosity of spirit and helps explain why Americans have taken him to their hearts."
Washington Irving wrote that in 1809 St. Nicholas came to the New World as the carved figurehead on the Dutch ship "Goede Vrouw". Even then, he was linked with bounty and good luck.
Earlier this year, researchers at Lancaster University determined that when children are exposed to magical good-natured figures like Santa Claus, they enjoy later benefits.
"Magical thinking enables children to create fantastic imaginary worlds, and in this way enhances children's capacity to view the world and act upon it from multiple perspectives," Eugene Subbotsky, Claire Hysted and Nicola Jones from the university's Department of Psychology said in a press release. "The results suggested that books and videos about magic might serve to expand children's imagination and help them to think more creatively."
Magical thinking of the beneficial sort involves believing in non-violent supernatural events like animals speaking human languages, or a "good witch" flying on a broomstick. This involves the ability to construct an alternative world and research has shown that most 4 to 6 year olds think magically in everyday life.
Children with chronic illnesses also seem to respond positively to thinking about such figures, including Santa Claus. Many charitable groups, as a result, organize visits from "Santa" to brighten the days of these kids and to remind them that Santa Claus has not forgotten them.
By modern standards, the hefty fellow sometimes seen smoking a pipe is "an obvious candidate for a coronary," Riga says. "But then," he quickly adds, "what kid has ever wanted to grow up to be Santa Claus?"
Luckily, what most often sticks in our minds long after childhood ends is the happiness associated with Santa, and thoughts of his generosity.
"Santa Claus never takes anything for himself," Riga explains, "except, perhaps, the cookies and milk left by the children."
© 2012 Discovery Channel