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The Santa Cloud of Distrust

Photograph by ThinkStock

When my son Alvaro was younger, he wanted to be Santa Claus when he grew up.

There was no one my son loved more, and each Christmas, my son's big brown eyes got a little bigger anticipating the jolly fat man's arrival at our home.

My husband and I played the part well, piling dozens of brightly wrapped presents (complete with uniquely-signed Santa gift tags) around the tree, even leaving fake snow prints by dipping my husband's boots in flour and pressing them into the floor.

Our deception knew no limits.

We NORAD-tracked Santa's sleigh, we wrote and signed Santa notes, we baked cookies and simultaneously ate them, and we feigned disbelief when our sons came running into our room Christmas morning, joy seeping out of every pore, declaring, "Santa came! He was here!"

For my oldest, Santa was much more than an annual gift-giver; he was the embodiment of pure love and kindness. I had no clue how devastated he would be the day he discovered that Santa was not a bearded, big-bellied man, but his very own parents who'd been lying to him his entire life.

Like most kids, my son heard from a classmate that Santa wasn't a real person. He came into my bedroom while I folded laundry, and stared at me for a good minute before asking the question that must have been painfully forming in his young mind.

"Is Santa real?" he asked.

"Mijo, Santa is real, except not the way you think. He is a spirit of love, of generosity, of celebration, and kindness. Your father and I are filled with Santa's spirit each year, and it helps us give gifts and be merry so you and your brother will have a wonderful Christmas."

My son was only nine years old, but I knew this day was fast approaching. I had long ago decided that I would not out-and-out lie to my children if I could help it, and that if they asked me about Santa or the Easter Bunny, I would tell them the truth.

I took a deep breath and turned toward my son.

"Mijo, Santa is real, except not the way you think. He is a spirit of love, of generosity, of celebration, and kindness. Your father and I are filled with Santa's spirit each year, and it helps us give gifts and be merry so you and your brother will have a wonderful Christmas."

I felt good about my response; it seemed wise, and full of love. However – one look at my son's tortured face told me that I had failed miserably.

He was wrestling with the news, and I quickly scrambled to repair any damage I had done.

"I mean, there is a Santa," I lied. He knew the minute it came out of my mouth that it wasn't true.

What he said next broke my heart.

"If Santa isn't real, is the Easter Bunny? Is God? Is anything you've ever told me true?"

I was not expecting that sort of questioning, or thinking, from a 9-year-old. I grappled with finding the right words – not something I normally struggle with, and settled on the pure truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.

We talked about traditions, about how much joy it gave me and his father to surprise them with gifts and treasures, and most importantly, memories. We talked about spiritual faith, about believing in things even if we can't see them, about love, and finally – about honesty.

"I am sorry that we hurt you," I said to my son. "All we have ever wanted was to give you happiness, and I hope that one day, when you are a father, you will also strive to find a way to make your children as happy as possible."

My son hugged me and left the room, intent on stewing for a time with the new knowledge he'd been given.

From the hallway I called out to him. "Please don't tell your little brother. Let him find out on his own."

It took some time, but eventually my son reconciled his love for Santa, and the knowledge that he wasn't completely real. Including him in the process made a huge difference.

"OK," my son slowly replied.

"Besides, now that you know, it's your job to take on the spirit of Santa, too. You have to help me and dad make Santa come alive for him. We need you," I said.

I saw a glimmer of interest, a hint of a smile.

"Can I eat the cookies?" he asked.

"Absolutely," I said.

It took some time, but eventually my son reconciled his love for Santa, and the knowledge that he wasn't completely real. Including him in the process made a huge difference.

Eventually my youngest, Jorge, also found out, but he took the news much better.

Last year, as a joke, my oldest placed the following note in my stocking: "My parents accused me of lying today. So I looked at them and said: 'Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus.' Then I walked away, like a boss."

He winked at me afterward and we both laughed. I think he's finally come around.

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