Look, it's complicated.
Kids of bygone eras might have believed in Santa Claus because it was customary. They might have believed because it's just what you did.
But for kids today, blind faith only goes so far.
Broach the subject of Santa, and it's possible you could have a philosophical argument on your hands. We spoke to kids who pointed to technological advancements as evidence for Santa Claus rather than against (his surveillance now being a simple matter of installation). In one case, a particularly spirited 11-year-old formed an interpretation of Santa Claus that came astonishingly close to quantum physics.
And then others don't believe at all.
It's a question that divides houses and splits classrooms. The best of friends fall on separate sides of a line that goes all the way to the North Pole (or nowhere at all).
One thing is common: Kids aren't afraid to talk about their beliefs and disbeliefs, or those of their siblings and classmates. As 10-year-old Estefani Garcia told us, “Anyone can believe or not believe in Santa Claus.”
It's the why and how that matters here.
Carlos Pineda, 11, is a traditionalist when it comes to most things Santa. Yes, he exists. Yes, he's bearded, jolly, rosy-cheeked and, well …
“Not to be offensive to Santa, but a little bit overweight,” Pineda said.
Pineda believes reindeer fly and that reasonable explanations exist as to how Santa flies down a chimney, even where there's no outward appearance of a fireplace.
Things get really interesting when Pineda shares his theory on how Santa keeps track of who's been good and bad.
“If you have a pet, your pet might have a chip inside of it,” he said. “They're like Santa spies. Dogs are always following you, but they're most active during December.”
So Pineda has a dog, right?
“No, I've got fish. They're usually watching me.”
Believer Estefani Garcia, 10, hears the rumors from her friends and sister.
“They say that my parents buy the gifts and they just pretend it's from Santa Claus,” she said.
But she chooses to think otherwise. And it has nothing to do with presents or their carriers or his fantastical delivery methods.
It's more fundamental than that. It's an outlook.
“It's kind of important, because (it's like) believing in your dreams,” she said. “It's like an option. You can not believe or you can believe.”
There was a time when Mayom Kiir, 12, shared Estefani's sentiment. He was a hardcore believer. He knew Santa Claus existed. He pictured the classic image of Santa.
“He looked like a nice person, who always comes and cares about people and gives,” Kiir said.
And then one night, when he was 7 years old, Kiir stayed up late. He waited for Santa Claus to arrive. Then morning came.
“I was sad,” he said.
He now throws himself in with the nonbelievers. Yet he still thinks it's important for others to believe, the younger kids especially.
“Because believing in Santa gives you Christmas spirit,” he said. “To care what Christmas is about. Being with your family and stuff.”
Brothers Kadin and Cameron Williams have some serious thoughts about Santa Claus.
Cameron, 8, is a staunch believer. Kadin, 11, considers himself “on the fence,” but the more he talks about it, the more he sides with his younger brother.
“Even if I catch my parents sneaking presents underneath the tree,” Cameron said. “I will still believe in him, because I think he's the embodiment of Christmas spirit.”
He means that literally. Both brothers think the popular image of Santa Claus is a construction. The real Santa is more of a spirit.
Things get really interesting when Kadin forwards his theory that there are two worlds — the “real world” they live in, and the “story world” where Santa resides — which approach each other but never overlap.
It got complex at this point, but the general idea is that belief is what transcends these two realms.
Younger brother Cameron considered this idea. He liked it. It agreed with his sense of Santa, too. Except …
“How do they not overlap at all?” he said.
Believe in Santa Claus? Karen Rodriguez, 11, just laughs.
No. Never. As in: Never.
She plays along come Christmastime. She doesn't want to ruin it for anyone else.
“If they're little, first I ask them if they believe, and then I say I do, too, because I don't want them to not believe just because I don't,” Karen said. “But if it's bigger people, then I think they don't either, so I just tell that I don't.”
She's never believed in any of the holiday heroes. The Easter Bunny? Please. Granted, there was a week when she wondered about the Tooth Fairy, but then her missing tooth turned up beneath her bed and the jig was up.
“I do believe there used to be somebody that was named Saint Nick,” she said. “And he went to people's houses, but not through the chimney, and he would bring them presents. A long time ago. He would visit all the children that he could before the day was gone. He would knock on people's doors. He would ask if they would like presents, and then the parents would get mugs of Santa, or Saint Nick.”