For my family, we don’t have Santa presents. We told our kids that some people believe in Santa just like some people believe in God. Of course, it’s easier to explain when they’re older. When they were little, I would decorate with Santa sometimes but they just kind of thought of Santa like just another snowman. Like skeletons and pumpkins at Halloween. The way we did Christmas is that you get gifts from Santa for being good, but give and receive gifts from loved ones. Presents from my parents were half from Santa, and half from them. All relatives’ gifts would be from them, we did a few things like “oh Santa must have gotten confused because he left a gift here for you” and it was really fun as a kid. I plan to do the same when I have kids.
Well, there are good cynical answers out there— and I’m not entirely sure my take isn’t also one of those— but I think a big part of it comes down to the whole “Nice kids get rewarded” side of the equation. The Santa story provides kids with a barometer of their good behavior with a supernatural element that isn’t tied purely to performative goodness, and that, in theory, leads to the understanding that it’s better to always be good even when you don’t know someone is watching and taking notes about it.