Young children believe in Father Christmas more than they do ghosts, dragons and aliens, research reveals

  • Two in five children also told the study they had seen Saint Nick in ‘real life’ 
  • Children, aged two to 11, scored characters based on how real they are for study
  • Cartoon characters Elsa, Peter Pan and Spongebob were identified as ‘fictional’ 

He may only come once a year to deliver presents – but young children believe in Father Christmas more than ghosts, dragons and aliens.

Two in five even thought they had seen jolly Saint Nick in ‘real life’, as many as said they had seen favourite children’s music group The Wiggles. 

Dinosaurs and the Tooth Fairy – who replaces baby teeth with a shiny £1 coin – were also ranked as more real by children, with cartoon characters including Princess Elsa seen as non-real fictional characters.

Scientists said Father Christmas may appear more real to Children because of cultural traditions - such as leaving out milk and cookies that 'vanish' by the morning

Scientists said Father Christmas may appear more real to Children because of cultural traditions – such as leaving out milk and cookies that ‘vanish’ by the morning

Children aged between two and 11 were asked to mark 13 characters out of eight, with zero meaning not real and eight meaning extremely real. Their results are shown above

Children aged between two and 11 were asked to mark 13 characters out of eight, with zero meaning not real and eight meaning extremely real. Their results are shown above

In the study researchers asked 176 Australian children, aged between two and 11, and 56 adults, to rate how real they considered 13 different figures ranging from actual people to cartoon characters.

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They would mark the figures between zero, not real at all, to eight, extremely real.

The results revealed children conceptualised four groups for the characters – real, cultural figure, ambiguous figure and fictional.

But adults only identified three – real, ambiguous and non-real.

They also showed children as young as three were able to understand the difference between ‘real’ and ‘non-real’.

‘What we show is that children tend to have a nuanced understanding of reality, more so than many expect,’ said study author Dr Rohan Kapitany, from Keele University in Staffordshire.

‘And we show it across a “pantheon” of figures who naturally vary in their degree of “reality” and cultural support.’

Other characters children scored as real were dinosaurs, such as this Megalosaurus

Other characters children scored as real were dinosaurs, such as this Megalosaurus

Princess Elsa was not scored as real by children, but instead identified as a fictional character

Princess Elsa was not scored as real by children, but instead identified as a fictional character

What characters were included in the study?

Children were asked to rank 13 characters from zero, not real, to eight, extremely real.

The characters included were: Dinosaurs, The Wiggles, Santa, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Alien, Ghost, Unicorn, Dragon, Spongebob, Princess Elsa and Peter Pan.

Dinosaurs and The Wiggles scored highest among children, with seven points, followed by cultural figures Santa and the Tooth Fairy, who had six points.

Ambiguous figures aliens, dragons and ghosts all scored four points, the same as fictional characters Peter Pan, Spongebob and Elsa.

In comparison, adults only grouped ghosts and aliens into the ambiguous group.

Researchers suggested that children may perceive Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy as more real due to indirect evidence from cultural rituals.

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These include setting out milk and cookies for Santa, which have ‘vanished’ by the morning, and the disappearance of their teeth.

The study was published in journal PLOS ONE. 



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