Author’s third grandson, Kai, meeting Santa for the first time

It was early December 1958 when my life fell apart. Mom had the house beautifully decorated for Christmas, and I’d just written my letter to Santa when a nasty friend of my older brother felt this was the time to tell me the truth—that Christmas was a lie and there was no Santa. Running to my mother, I sobbed in her arms. Then, through my tears, I begged for her to tell me the truth.

“Do you really want to know?” I remember her asking. At six years old, I loved living in fairytale land, but the curious side of me, that sneaky character who peeked into all presents under the tree given by relatives long before the big day, had to know.

“Yes,” I blubbered.

Sitting me down, she wiped away my tears and began, “I’m going to tell you a secret, but you can’t tell your younger brothers, promise?” Nodding my head, I squeezed my fingers into a fist hoping to gain control, for I could sense the answer would sting. “Yes, honey, there is no Santa. It’s Mommy and Daddy.”

Feeling as if my whole life was a lie, as if I were adopted and just found out the news, I cried even harder. “So, there’s no Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny either?” A piece of my childhood had been ripped away before I was ready to handle the real world.

Many years later, I’d be faced with the same question from my firstborn, Michelle, as I took her to kindergarten just as the holidays were unfolding. Everywhere I looked in her classroom, decorations were bursting, and art projects lined the large picture window that would be later given as gifts for the parents. Bookshelves displayed colorful covers about the holiday, waiting for small hands to pick them up, and soon there’d be a party where the big guy in red would show up to hand out candy canes. Feeling the excitement buzz throughout the classroom, I didn’t want to burst her bubble, but she was adamant for the truth. I told her we’d discuss it after class.

Hours later when she asked again, I wanted to lie and say, “Don’t be silly. Of course there’s a Santa. Who else could bring all those toys?” But looking into her demanding face, I spilled the beans. As tears welled in her eyes, she threw her arms around me, and I panicked that for the rest of her life, she would be damaged goods and that all the magic would gone.

I think many parents struggle with whether to even start the tradition of Santa Claus. Just Google the topic, and you’ll find a million articles against the entire concept. A lie is a lie, and many kids never get over one. But, until that day so long ago when I thought my heart would break, how I loved everything that went with it – helping my mom bake cookies, writing Santa a laundry list of things I wanted from the Sears Catalog, sitting by the tree at night to look at the twinkling lights and all the ornaments from Mom’s childhood. Each had a story behind it, and now they belonged to us. While one day it might hurt for my children to know the truth, I decided to carry on the tradition. I wanted them to experience the same wonder and awe I did.

Recently I found a beautiful article on Facebook on what to say when asked about Santa that I shared with my kids. How I wish I had it in my back pocket when telling them the truth.

As the story goes, a father is asked by his son the “truth about Santa” question. The child feels he’s old enough. Sitting his son down, he first acknowledges that Santa is real but that he’s really Mommy and Daddy. He then continues, “Santa Claus is not a person, but the idea of giving just for the sake of giving, without thoughts of acknowledgment or thanks.”

Each time we do a kind act—open a door, give a smile, call for help when someone we don’t know is hurt, or even say, “I love you,” we are acting as Santa Claus because we are doing altruistic deeds out of the kindness of our hearts. And, by telling a child the truth, they are now part of a privileged secret. Going forward, they can help with the gift buying, wrapping, and story telling to help the younger siblings enjoy the fantasy for as long as they can—a very grownup thing to do. A very special secret to keep.

I’m now a grandmother of four and how I love watching my two older grandsons, Bo, at three, and Mac, twenty months, get excited about the season. There are cookies to decorate, a tree with sparkling lights and ornaments to touch, books to read, and each morning, Sprinkles (the elf on the shelf) finds a new hiding place, always with a little treat to start the day. Soon, the other two grandbabies, Jordan and Kai, will be on their way to loving the magic as well, and I want to be there to witness their excitement too. And while I do worry they’ll all be crushed with the truth, maybe there’s a way to gradually lighten the sting that one day comes for all.

As I spend my time in Austin this Christmas, the boys and I will talk about what we can do for other people this season. Just because they’re little doesn’t mean they can’t act like Santa and participate in doing good deeds for others as a surprise. As we go shopping, we can wish everyone we meet a hearty “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holiday.”  Each time I see the Salvation Army guy ringing the bell, I’ll hand the boys some money to put in the can, then later explain where that all goes—for children who have less. Together, we’ll wrap little gifts I’ve bought for all the neighborhood children and sneak them on the front porches when no one is looking. But the most important thing will be that we talk about and try to practice (“try” being the operative word—remember, they’re only toddlers) kindness and sharing. It will start in their home with the idea they take the tradition with them daily into the world—not just at Christmas but for the whole year long.

As an adult, the one thing I need to keep in mind is that our little ones are always watching. This is how they learn to be the best version of themselves by watching us be ours. So, this Christmas I’m putting on my red velvet pantsuit and will look for opportunities to help others with them in tow. It may not mean much now, and may be overshadowed by the excitement of receiving gifts. But one day soon, they’ll recognize that doing kind, thoughtful acts for others brings peace and joy into their lives—and they won’t need to wear a fat suit while doing it. What a gift that will be. A present to last a lifetime.