I was sitting at the computer, updating our Christmas card mailing list.
She was standing next to me, working on an art project at the kitchen table. We’d been talking about random things, but at that moment, it was quiet. Her dad and sister were asleep on the floor next to the Christmas tree. Patches der Hund sat at our feet.
She broke the silence by asking if she could ask a question. Without looking up from my work, I answered yes, of course, ask away.
And so she asked. Straightforward and certain. No hesitation.
“Are you and Dad really Santa Claus?”
Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with my coworker about this very thing.
We were talking about that time in our own youth when we found out the truth. Or rather, when the truth dawned on us and we asked our parents to confirm. My coworker mentioned that there was about a two-year period where he knew, but he didn’t want to know, and he clung to the belief before finally, he just asked.
Martin and I had been talking about this moment, the questioning of Santa, too. Actually, we’ve been discussing it for years, beginning as newlyweds figuring out how to combine the German and American Christmas traditions of our Catholic families. Some things were the same, of course. While growing up, both of us participated in Christmas pageants depicting the Nativity, and caroling hymns and Christmas songs around the neighborhood.
But what about Santa Claus and other secular holiday traditions?
For example, my house is covered in lights and tinsel the day after Thanksgiving while Martin’s family doesn’t put out a single decoration until Christmas Eve, when they put up the tree. And I used to feel weird having the tree still up for New Years, but his family doesn’t take theirs down until January 6.
That’s one area we combined tradition: our tree goes up after Thanksgiving and stays up until Epiphany.
In Germany, Martin and his siblings got treats left overnight in their shoes on St. Nicholas Day every December 6. Family members exchanged gifts with each other Christmas Eve, meaning everyone could sleep in before a big breakfast and church on Christmas Day.
I had a much different experience growing up in Cincinnati. Santa Claus was very real in our house, and I have very sweet memories of anticipating his visit with my sisters. Writing letters. Checking the sky for reindeer. Waiting for hours at the mall to see the REAL Santa himself. Leaving cookies and milk on the table. And then the excitement of Christmas morning! Waking up early with my sisters, sneaking downstairs to take stock first before waking the parents.
All very magical memories I wanted my children to enjoy, too.
So Martin and I embraced Santa Claus when we became parents. And at one point, Martin officially became one of his helpers while we were over in Italy.
However, the discussion about Santa Claus always comes up at least once every Christmas. Not always by us, but by others. Sometimes this was a positive thing, as we have friends of different faiths and traditions, and we all share our observances with each other.
Other times, discussions about Santa were more cynical, as we know folks who believe the whole idea of Santa is just wrong, who think nothing of pointing out to Martin and me that we are lying to our children.
“They will never trust you again when they find out the truth,” they warned us.
To that, though, I’ve always just smiled and nodded while dunking my combat boots in the ash of our fireplace to create the illusion of Santa’s footprints to and from the fireplace to our tree.
Because I knew how I handled the truth when I learned it, and I was confident my kids would react the same way. After all, my kids know Christmas isn’t all about Santa. They also know that not every family celebrates or believes in Santa, and that’s okay. It just so happens that we believe.
And I always said, when the moment comes, I will tell the truth.
That moment came on Friday.
And I told her the truth.
It turned out to be one of the sweetest conversations I’ve had with my daughter. When she asked, I turned completely in my chair to face her. I asked her reasons for wondering. A boy in her class claimed to have caught his parents on video putting presents under the tree.
And you can’t argue with an iPhone video.
Plus, she admitted, she had her suspicions about the logistics.
I told her she was right on schedule: that I was exactly her age when I asked that question.
“I was in the fourth grade, too,” I explained.
“Exactly like you. I forget what made me do it, but I do remember I asked my mom, just like you did.”
“You did?” She looked relieved.
“I did,” I said, “And I learned the whole truth.”
So I spilled the beans. I told her about St. Nicholas, how he was a real person who gave gifts, and how the whole tradition of Santa Claus evolved to what it is today. How there’s definitely the spirit of Santa, and how her dad and I do what we can to make the whole experience something really wonderful for her and her siblings.
“So, you guys buy all the gifts for us? Isn’t that really expensive?” she asked, her face scrunched with concern.
“Don’t even worry about that,” I said. “We save, and your grandparents send toys, too. We enjoy getting those things for you.”
“But my iPod?” she asked, referring to her big gift from a few years ago. “That must have cost a lot. I feel bad for losing it so often now.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. She was genuinely concerned. But then her face changed.
“And what about the Tooth Fairy?” she asked. I nodded.
“The Easter Bunny, too,”I admitted.
She shook her head. But there was a clever smile on her face. She started listing a lot of the things she remembered from over the years, little things Santa did to our living room or wrote in his letters, and I explained how I did it all, although I told her I was still going to keep some secrets for myself.
After all, I wanted her to still enjoy Christmas, too, and to surprise her come Christmas morning.
I pointed out, though, that now that she knew the truth, she needed to be mindful that other kids, especially younger kids, still believe, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I also pointed out that she could now help her Dad and me to make the time special for her sister and brother.
Her face absolutely lit up.
“Oh, that would be awesome,” she said. “I could be like an elf, and come up with all kinds of ideas. Like, we could put glitter on the fireplace with the footprint. And I can totally let you guys know what Lola wants for Christmas. Oh, and can I help you go shopping now? I’m really good at that.”
I laughed and took her hands.
“Are you mad at us for being Santa Claus? Do you feel like we lied to you?”
“No, not mad. Definitely not mad. You didn’t lie to me. You made Santa real for me. But, Mom?” she asked. “Is it okay if I sometimes forget we had this conversation, and I believe in Santa again?”
I gave her a hug.
“Of course,” I told her. “Because I do the same thing all the time.”
Believing in the spirit of Santa, and the goodness of my daughter, and the love and magic of this season.
All the time.