Before there were questions about his race, there were questions about whether he exists at all.
Do you believe in Santa Claus? How did you find out who he is? Do you think kids should be encouraged to believe?
It just so happens that some of those questions were first posed at the University of Nebraska more than a century ago.
It's an odd story, one involving an obscure 19th century study, a surprise discovery 80 years later, the imaginations of hundreds of children and, for a brief moment in 1979, the Iranian hostage crisis.
It begins in 1896, with a 30-year-old student named Frances Duncombe.
That spring, Duncombe conducted independent research for an NU course in psychology, at the time a relatively new field of study in the United States. The particular course Duncombe took reflected a short-lived movement called “child study” that could be considered a precursor to developmental psychology.
Duncombe chose as her topic “the old story of Santa Claus.”
She crafted a four-question survey and gathered responses from more than 1,500 kids, fourth-graders to eighth-graders. She recorded their former notions of Santa Claus and found that the vast majority of students believed he held supernatural powers.
She learned that most kids stopped believing by age 7, gleaning the truth from their parents or other kids in about equal measures.
Asked if younger kids should be taught to believe in Santa, 57 percent said yes. Of those, half said because it makes kids happy. A smaller slice said because it was an effective way to keep kids in check.
In July 1896, Duncombe published her findings in the North-Western Journal of Education. It probably was the first academic study ever done on the psychology of Santa Claus, and yet it seemed destined for obscurity. The journal ceased publication just a few years later. By the early 20th century, the “child study” movement itself lost steam. Duncombe's study became a blip worthy of its own existential question: Did it ever even exist?
And then a funny thing happened.
Almost 80 years later, in 1977, a man named Ludy T. Benjamin was researching something else entirely — the work of Harry Kirk Wolfe, who opened the NU psychology lab in 1889 — when he came across Duncombe's paper.
“What jumped out at me was the detail of her methodology,” Benjamin said. “Even describing that she had done the study in February and March.”
Benjamin, who taught psychology at Nebraska Wesleyan University at the time, grew fascinated by the study and enthralled by the trail Duncombe left behind. She didn't just record her findings, she laid out her entire process.
“Everything that would allow us to replicate her study in 1977,” Benjamin said.
And that's just what he did. With the help of two undergraduates, he posed the same questions Duncombe asked Lincoln children in 1896 to Lincoln children in 1977.
The results, published in a 1979 issue of Psychology Today, identified some interesting differences. For one, kids in 1977 believed in Santa Claus, on average, six months longer than their earlier counterparts.
“That was a real surprise,” Benjamin said.
Anne Schutte, who currently teaches in the department of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said responses from both sets of children fall in line with more recent research showing that kids tend to stop believing in magic around age 6 and 7. “So that fits nicely with the age they report no longer believing in Santa.”
Children in 1977 also described Santa as more human, less supernatural. The proliferation of media, and particularly the appearance of superheroes, might have had something to do with that, but as Benjamin noted, “when you're comparing these two data sets, you're guessing.”
Perhaps the biggest difference of all between the two studies came next.
“When that study came out in Psychology Today in '79, I probably got 200 calls from radio stations that year,” Benjamin said. “I got TV interviews. In fact, I was going to be on 'Good Morning America.' ”
Then breaking news came out of Tehran. Iranian students had stormed the U.S. Embassy.
“And we got bumped,” Benjamin said.
The study received plenty of attention nonetheless, prompting follow-up articles and interview appearances. The attention carried over into the next year, and the year after that, until it trickled to a stop.
Benjamin went on to teach psychology and educational psychology at Texas A&M before retiring in 2012. He now lives in Virginia.
Details of Duncombe's life are scarce. She taught at Lincoln High School for almost 40 years. She never married. She died in 1958, at age 92.
But more than a century later, her questions linger. Children believe and disbelieve and draw dynamic conclusions on the path from one to the other.
On a recent afternoon, 9-year-old Maddie Kopplin sat in her kitchen with her mom and older sister, turning Duncombe's questions over in her mind.
She learned the truth about Santa late, she said, at age 8, during a precocious period she called “my phase.”
It was almost the same experience as one reported by a girl in 1896. One day, Maddie voiced her suspicion and her mother dutifully confirmed it. She's still not quite over it.
“They skimmed us like last year's cow!” Maddie said of the world's grown-ups, but she saw the other side, too. “It does trigger your imagination.”