Button and I were driving together in the car, singing along joyfully to Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. It’s a family favorite. We really get into it, loud voices, animated reenactments and all. But this time I could see the wheels spinning in her mind. I knew it was coming. But I hope it wasn’t.

And then it happened. “Mama, I have a question for you.” I turned the joyful song off as my heart dropped a little and my mind started racing. “Mama, is Santa Claus real?” I don’t know how I’m going to respond to her…How do you tell your kid the truth about Santa?

A little bit of context here. My mom did a *really* good job of playing Santa Claus. I had asked her if he was real, but only got vague answers. So I launched a 2-year investigation trying to prove he was fake, but I got no evidence (Mom even had other people fill out the gift tags so Santa’s handwriting was different). So I totally believed Santa was real til third grade. That’s when mom got a call from the school principal. Apparently I was beating up kids on the playground who had the audacity to say Santa wasn’t real. Mom had to come retrieve me from the principal’s office. She told me the truth that afternoon. It was traumatic for me. I felt my whole world came apart — What was real? What wasn’t? What did I really know? What was just make believe, only to be revealed later? Who could I trust?

When we had kids, I didn’t want to do the Santa thing. I didn’t want them to have the traumatic experience I had. But then again, I also didn’t want to deprive them of some of the magical fun of Christmas. Nor did I want them to wonder why Santa wasn’t bringing presents for them. See, you can’t tell 3 year olds that Santa isn’t real and expect that they won’t go and tell all the other kids. Then your kid gets beat up and all the parents hate your family. Makes for really terrible daycare and playground dynamics…

What a tangled mess of Christmas lights… I resolved it by choosing to have Santa bring presents, but only a couple presents and not the most special ones. This minimizes Santa’s importance and the ability for the kids to attach to him (when Santa visited me, he brought 50+ presents, and the best ones!). I also decided to always answer the kids’ questions truthfully, though obliquely. For example, I’ve always told them the story about the real St. Nicholas. Or I respond to their questions with questions: how do you think he gets down the chimney? how do you think he knows if you are sleeping? Up until this point, I have successfully kept a clear conscience and given a response to all questions, while also preserving the magic of Santa Claus.

And now here we are. That dreaded moment. Dear God, may she please not be traumatized.

“Mama, is Santa Claus real?”

“What do you mean by real?” (This is the kind of question I’ve used to get out of directly answering in the past…)

“Real, Mama! Is there a man that comes down our chimney at Christmas and leave presents for us?!”

“Do you think he’s real?”

“Mama, I don’t want to think it through for myself. I just want an answer. Is he real or isn’t he?”

“Button, I’ll tell you the answer, but I want you to think about it. If he isn’t real, who would leave the presents?” (I tried to keep a neutral, non-leading voice so as not to give away the answer).

“The family might get up in the middle of the night and leave the presents.”

“Why would they do that?”

“For fun for the kids.”

“Hmm. And then pretend it was Santa instead of them?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Why would that be ok?”

“Because it’s more fun for the kids.”

“Okay…who was Saint Nicholas?”

She recounted to me his story, and again articulated that she just wants to know the answer to her question.

Button, why did St. Nicholas give gifts? Why did he love the kids and poor people?”

She thought about it. “Because of Jesus? Mama, was St. Nicholas a Christian?!”

I laughed. How did she miss this? “Yes, honey. When someone is called ‘Saint’ that means they’re a Christian, and a particularly godly one. In fact, the Bible says we’re all saints in Christ.”

“So I’m Saint Button?”

I laughed, “Yes!” Apparently that was cool. “St. Nicholas loved others because Jesus loved him. And when we give or receive gifts from Santa, we remember that Jesus loves us and others. It’s another way of honoring the Lord and celebrating His birth. When did St. Nick live? A long time ago or a short time ago?”

“A long time ago.”

“So St. Nicholas lived a long time ago, and…”

“Wait, ‘lived’? So, Santa Claus is DEAD?!”

Oh, how did I get myself into this? This was *not* how it was supposed to go… “Well, Button, did you think St. Nicholas would still be alive when he lived so long ago?”

“I don’t know, Mama. That’s what I’m asking you! Is Santa dead or alive?!”

“Button, St. Nicholas is not still alive. But we still celebrate his memory and what he did every Christmas by giving gifts from Santa Claus. Remember how he gave gifts to the children and to the poor? And he did it secretly so it would be a big surprise for them? So that’s what parents and family members do for kids every year to carry on the memory and traditions of St. Nicholas. You’re right–the family gets up at night and does it. Do you think that’s a good thing for the family to do? To pretend there’s a Santa Claus?”

She nodded.

“You do? Even though it’s like a lie?”

“Yep. It’s a good thing. It’s more magical for the kids. So it’s okay. It’s important for Christmas to be magical for the kids. So, Mama, you don’t get presents from Santa?”

I smiled. “Sometimes I still do. And I love getting them. I know they’re not from a fat man who slides down the chimney, but they’re from family and loved ones, and they’re given in the spirit of St. Nicholas. Button, are you going to tell Siah that Santa isn’t real now that you know?”

She thought about it. “No. He’ll know soon enough. Let’s let it be magical for him still.”