Q. Neither my husband nor I are religious. His background is Jewish and mine is Episcopalian, but our parents seldom went to temple or church when we grew up.

We were married by a judge and neither our son nor our daughter (now 3 and 1) have been inducted into either faith. It seemed like such a pretense.

We are, however, very moral people and try to live by a code of honesty, above all. This makes it hard for us to encourage the myth of Santa Claus, especially when it is tied to Christmas. It just doesn't seem fair to my husband's heritage -- as remote as it is now -- and yet I must say I miss it. We do have a small tree and give gifts, but they come from us, not Santa Claus. Our 3-year-old, after all the talk at nursery school, insists otherwise and wants to go see Santa Claus. How should we deal with this?

A. Actually, there are two issues here: religion and Santa Claus. They're not the same.

Even though you don't follow your faiths, it is important for children -- as early as 3 -- to set aside a time each day to count their blessings, whether you call it grace or bedtime prayers or simply meditation or recollection. Children need to remember how much they have, so they can be thankful for it, whether religion is part of it or not.

And they need their holidays and their high holy days too. These occasions will help your children reach out to share with others, and to be like them too: a vital need in the middle years when conformity is king. These feasts (and fasts) also will be important to your children because they will be their touchstones with the past.

Religion is a matter of culture as well as faith. You can create your own code of ethics to live by, but you can't invent the culture that comes with your religion. Your children deserve to know about it.

This will give them a better sense of who they are. In this mobile society, with our families often so scattered by distance and alienation, a child needs every anchor he can get.

You and your husband will be able to understand and explain the Jewish culture to your children better if you first read The Jewish Family Book by Sharon Strassfeld and Kathy Green (Bantam, $9.95). It's a superb compilation of advice and information and one of the best-written and most thoughtful books on family life you can find. All issues are handled with logic and kindness, with a Jewish focus if applicable. Although the advice is year-round, it should help Jewish parents deal with the Christmas issue and remind Christians that there are many ways to live and give.

Although many parents have made it work, the authors don't recommend a celebration of Christmas for children reared as Jews, even in an interfaith marriage.

This doesn't apply to your household however. Since neither you nor your husband have strong feelings about your religions you can give your children your special holidays as a matter of heritage rather than religion. And if you have a Christmas tree, please have a Seder too, or at least take part in one. Both are lovely family occasions and will remind your children that if a mixed marriage has its extra stress -- and any cross-culture marriage does -- it also has a richer heritage.

As for Santa Claus and honesty: What about Goldilocks and honesty or the tooth fairy and honesty? Talking bears, teeth-happy fairies and elves that fly in the sky all feed a child's imagination and help it survive when so much else suppresses it.

It may be more honest to say Santa isn't so, but where a child is concerned, this won't make it so. As one little boy whispered -- when he heard his realist mother warn the sitter against stories of Santa -- "Mommy thinks she brings me the presents, but Santa really does. Don't tell."

A child believes what he wants to believe, but it's more fun if he thinks you believe it too.