In the fall of 1895 Frances E. Duncombe, a thirty-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska, enrolled in a year-long course taught by Dr. Harry K. Wolfe, a leader in the burgeoning child study movement. One of the course requirements was to undertake original research. Consequently, in February and March of 1896, Duncombe asked more than 1,500 Lincoln schoolchildren in grades four through eight for their ideas about Santa Claus. Her study was published in the July 1896 issue of the Northwestern Journal of Education, edited at the University of Nebraska. Duncombe’s research methods and results are described in considerable detail.
Children were asked what they thought about Santa Claus when they were younger; the age at which they learned that he didn’t exist and their feelings about this; how their former belief in Santa Claus influenced them later; and whether they believed young children should still be taught to believe in Santa Claus.
Duncombe discovered that children learned the truth about Santa Claus almost equally from parents and other children; that they were about 6.3 years of age when they stopped believing that he existed; and that their common feeling on learning the news was sorrow. Approximately 57 percent said that young children should be taught to believe in Santa Claus. Duncombe also included some of the actual responses of the children in the report of her study.
Duncombe’s survey provided the earliest psychological study of children’s ideas about Santa Claus, yielding valuable insights into the minds of children over a century ago. More information on her pioneering study in child psychology is online at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website, along with other articles from past issues of Nebraska History magazine. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications