A few Decembers ago, our Christmas almost completely unraveled. My son William, then 6 years old, was having an existential crisis: "Santa isn't real," he declared. I panicked: Had he found the toys stashed in the back of my closet? Had he overheard a whispered conversation with my husband? Did one of the big kids on the bus spill the beans?
"Why don't you think there's a Santa?" I asked nervously.
"Because Santa wouldn't leave out my Jewish friends," William said. And when I couldn't think of a fast response, I did the next best thing.
"Is that snow?" I awkwardly shouted while pointing to our window. William ran to look out and saw nothing but sunshine. But, it was enough to change the subject. For the moment, Santa's secret was still safe.
The next Christmas, as he was unwrapping Santa's presents, William commented that the packaging looked suspiciously similar to the presents he had just gotten for his birthday. I put down the video camera.
"Well, um, that's right. It is the same packaging," I said, my brain straining to work at 6 a.m. Christmas morning. "See, Santa actually came up with this whole packaging system to keep his presents safe as he makes his way around the world... Yes, he, uh, owns the patent on it. So... stores pay him each time they use his system... and that's probably why he can afford all these presents," I said triumphantly.
William nodded, but looked confused. Maybe he didn't know what a patent was. Maybe he was working out the whole Santa thing in his head. Maybe he felt pity for his babbling mom. In any case, he didn't ask follow up questions. Perhaps he wasn't ready for the truth. I know I wasn't.
Out of the blue last year, William finally laid it on the line. "Mom, I know there's no such thing as Santa," he said bluntly.
"Really?" I asked with my voice cracking. And in a last-ditch effort to save Santa I blurted out, "Because I believe in him."
"No, Mom, you don't. And if you don't tell me the truth right now, I'll never trust you again."
Ouch -- my own words were coming back to bite me. Reluctantly, I surrendered and confessed, "Yes, William. You're right."
"I knew it! I just knew it!" William went on and on about how Santa's story just didn't check out: How could he keep track of everyone's wish list, how could just one man make all those deliveries in one day, and how could he enter homes that didn't have fireplaces without getting arrested?
And with that, his long-running case against Santa was closed. William would never again leave cookies to please tired, old St Nick or carrots for the hungry reindeer, and there would be no more listening for footsteps on the roof as my excited little boy drifted off to sleep. Gone forever was the blind innocence that a stranger dressed in red would climb down a chimney and make his wishes come true. It was an unexpectedly sad moment for me as a parent. Keeping Santa a secret, I realized, had been as much for me as it was for him. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy -- I wasn't ready for that magical part of his childhood to end and the reality of the world to set in.
What would Christmas be like without Santa, I wondered? I got a glimpse when William handed me a piece of paper. It was an early wish list (one of many to come), but the only thing he had written on this one was "Toys for young kids." For his first Christmas without Santa, he wanted to be someone else's Santa Claus and buy presents for a toy drive at a nearby school. He eagerly picked out just the right toys and we wrapped them together. In finding out the truth about Santa, could my little boy be figuring out the real magic of Christmas?
Before you cue the singing angels, 9-year-old William still writes out Christmas wish lists for the toys he wants under the tree. But, he's also excited to pick out toys we'll be giving to some children who need them in our area. My little guy no longer falls asleep dreaming about sleigh bells, but he seems to be thrilled about the holiday in a whole new way: imagining little boys and girls waking up on Christmas morning surprised by the presents he now gets to sign "Love, Santa."
Jennifer is a contributing editor and blogger at www.EmpoweringParents.com. She's also a freelance writer for The Wall Street Journal and several national magazines. Earlier in her career, Jennifer was a journalist for "60 Minutes." She lives in New York with her husband and their three children.