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Why Santa Claus still has a hold on us

Santa Claus in a red suit putting wrapped presents beneath a decorated Christmas tree.
Santa Claus remains a “unifying” holiday figure. (Getty Images)

Maybe it’s been decades since you believed Santa Claus was the one leaving you presents and wolfing down the cookies you’d left out. But the magic of the jolly, white-haired figure isn’t lost even on those who know his existence is fictional.

In fact, Christmas movies — many of which feature St. Nick himself — are still enjoyed by a majority of American adults. He also remains an integral part of holiday celebrations, whether kids are involved or not. From SantaCon to Santa-inspired “ugly Christmas sweaters” to festive decorations, Kris Kringle remains near and dear, whether you believe in him or not. This is because of how the character makes us feel — rather than what he’s supposed to do (bring presents).

“Santa Claus evokes feelings of wonder, surprise, joy and excitement,” Yasmine Saad, the founder and director of psychological services at Madison Park Psychological Services in New York City, tells Yahoo Life. “Santa is also associated with a feeling of warmth with his outfit, laughter and round belly.”

These feelings are something that we recognize in childhood, as we hear of Santa's magic for the very first time. According to Saad, the belief in Santa Claus “is part of a broader spectrum of magical thinking in children, which is a normal and healthy aspect of child development.” The myth also encourages children “to exercise their reasoning skills as they eventually discern fantasy from reality,” she says. Some parents might also use the character to encourage good behavior from their kids.

“Those associations form an imprint, and therefore, whether [or not] we believe in Santa, he represents these attributes for us: warmth, joy, magic, surprise,” says Saad.

That holds true even in adulthood for many people. Nostalgia might lead some to check in on NORAD's Santa Tracker, or curl up on the couch watching a Santa-centric holiday film like Miracle on 34th Street.

“Santa brings back memories of a time when life was simpler and more magical. This nostalgia can be comforting and can provide a sense of continuity across generations,” says Saad.

“In many ways he lets adults act like kids again by revisiting traditions every year,” clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg tells Yahoo Life. “He brings to us an escape from reality, regardless of what is going on in the world.”

And it’s not just kids who have something to look forward thanks to Santa as the year comes to a close. “He helps us end the year on a positive note,” says Greenberg.

Ultimately, Santa is bigger than any one person — or belief system. Saad considers him a “unifying figure” who “transcends the celebration of Christmas and Christianity.”

Says Saad, “He serves as a cultural shorthand for a set of widely cherished ideals and emotions, making him an effective and enduring symbol.”