“That Santa isn’t real, you know,” says my nine-year-old son, Isaac. Leaning on a plush red rope that snakes alongside the glittering Christmas display at the mall, he points to the white-bearded man chatting with a mom and cradling a newborn baby in his arms.
Thankfully, the exhausted toddlers and frustrated parents waiting in line for pictures with Santa didn’t hear what Isaac said. But I did. And so did his five-year-old sister, Gillian. We both whipped our heads around and stared at him in disbelief, mouths wide open.
“He’s Santa’s helper, because Santa needs extra help at this time of year to visit all the kids that want to talk to him,” explains Isaac. “It’s because Santa is made out of magic that he can do these things.” My heart stops pounding and I breath a small sigh of relief. He still believes, I think to myself. He is still my baby for just a bit longer.
For the past three years, I’ve been waiting for my son to ask me if Santa is real. In some ways, it’s a conversation I dread more than talking with him about sex—at least his questions about sex can be answered with straightforward, age-appropriate facts. But the idea of telling him that it’s me and his dad eating the cookies he leaves out and bringing him presents makes me sad—it’s one of the last childhood secrets we’ve kept from him. It’s one I’m not ready to divulge yet, because what is the right age for a kid to stop believing in the magic of Christmas?
The year I learned about Santa was the year my parents got divorced. I was nine years old, the same age as my son. As the eldest of three siblings, my newly single mom relied on me to pitch in more around the house. I was forced to grow up quickly that year. I was told I wouldn’t get the gifts I coveted that year because Santa wasn’t real. Christmas was hard that year, and not because I wasn’t getting what I wanted but because I was no longer excited about the holidays—I had nothing to believe in.
Now, as an adult, I realize my mom did that because money was tight and getting me what I wanted simply wasn’t financially possible. As a kid, though, it broke my heart.
As I watched my kids sit with Santa last weekend, I saw a look in their smiling faces that I only see at this time of year: It’s joy, anticipation, hope and happiness. That look is pure childhood magic, and I never want to be the one to take it away from them.
This article was originally published November 2015.