I was driving my oldest daughter to gymnastics practice one mid-November evening when she asked if we could talk about Christmas.
“Sure,” I said, assuming she would ask about something easy. Items for her Christmas list, maybe our travel plans.
Instead, she hit me with the question I’d been dreading for years.
“Mom, Santa isn’t real, is he?” she asked.
“What? Huh? What do you mean?” I stuttered, caught off guard.
Yet, despite my surprise, the question was not a shock. All last holiday season, she had probed and questioned us about Santa and her Elf on the Shelf, Bubba. Like why Bubba sometimes forgot to move. Or how he managed to purchase pajamas from Old Navy. Yet with every question, she had seemed yearning, not for the truth she suspected, but confirmation that her suspicions were unfounded. That, however illogical, Santa was real.
And so I had deflected and explained her worries away. Then I’d set out to ensure that Christmas was the most magical ever. We baked cookies and rode Christmas trains, and had breakfast with Santa. We made gingerbread houses, mailed Christmas lists, and sat on Santa’s lap. We left out cookies on Christmas Eve and sprinkled reindeer food on our deck. And together, we cheered when Santa brought the skateboard I’d told her she couldn’t have.
Now there in our car on a regular Tuesday evening, the magic was over. I knew at nine years old she needed the truth, but I still wanted to ensure she was ready. So as tears welled in my eyes, I drove and let her talk.
“Everyone in my class already knows,” she said. “I’m the only one whose parents haven’t said. But I know they’re right. I saw presents in your closet last year. And come on the Easter bunny? I know that can’t be real.”
She presented her evidence with clarity and confidence that had been absent last year. She wasn’t looking for me to confirm Santa’s existence but to verify this new information.
And so I did.
“You’re right,” I said. “Santa Claus is not real. But what Santa stands for is. Saint Nicholas did exist and secretly gave gifts to the poor. Parents continue this tradition to celebrate the birth of Jesus and help teach the joy of giving to others.”
From the rearview mirror, I watched her nod. So I continued.
“But even if Santa isn’t real, that doesn’t mean Christmas isn’t magical. Because this whole world is magical, there is so much in life we can’t explain. Like why some people who are incredibly sick get better. Or how our planet so perfectly supports life. So Santa isn’t just about Christmas. He is also about having faith, about believing in something bigger than us, something we can’t fully understand.”
We were almost at practice by then, my foot on the brake, my hand ready to put the car into park.
“Now, one more thing. You have had many wonderful years believing in Santa. Your two siblings deserve the same. So from this day on, you are our helper. Your job is to help us make Santa real for them too.”
“All right, I promise,” she said in her singsong voice, the one with just enough sass to hint at the teenager she will be all too soon.
She climbed out of the car then, taking with her a water bottle and gymnastics grips, two wristbands, and a few hair ties. In the backseat, a piece of childhood remained, never to be picked up again.
I watched her as she opened the gym door, gave me a wave, then disappeared into the glowing lights. There were no cars behind me in the drop-off line, so for a minute, I lingered, letting myself cry as I changed the music to a favorite song.
Then I went home. Back to dinner prep and a messy house. Back to helping with first-grade homework, prepping preschool crafts, and packing everyone’s turkey pajamas for Thanksgiving. And as the days passed, the conversation with my daughter faded. Yet still, I worried about what this holiday season would hold. Would she be okay keeping this secret? Would she be sad when her elf returned, and she knew he hadn’t come from the North Pole?
I wasn’t sure what to expect until the other day when our family walked into a store and saw signs pointing towards a life-sized Santa’s workshop, complete with times for Santa photos. Immediately, I began to sweat as I thought of my daughter. Would seeing Santa’s workshop make her upset?
Before I could worry, she bolted off in its direction.
“Look, guys! It’s Santa’s workshop!” she said to her siblings. “This is where Santa is going to be!” Her eyes were bright, her body shaking with excitement as it had always been.
“I can’t wait for Christmas!” she said, her face alight. “I can’t wait for Santa!”
“Me too!” said my four-year-old.
“Me three!” said my six-year-old.
And right then, I knew this Christmas would be just as magical as the last. Yes, my oldest daughter doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. But she does believe in faith, joy, and giving. The very lessons I wanted Santa to teach her. So maybe that is why she finally asked for the truth. Maybe she knew she was done receiving what Santa was there to bring.
Yet I’d be lying if I said my eyes were dry while writing this. Because all those years staying up late assembling doll houses and bikes and unicorn playsets, all those years watching with joy as she’d scream out “Santa came!” and race toward the tree – those were some of my most magical Christmases too. I will miss them even as I look back with gratitude and look forward with excitement for all the new traditions that lie ahead.