Q. I have two preschoolers, and the 4-year-old is old enough to anticipate Christmas.

Santa Claus is my problem. Last year even strangers asked him what Santa would bring him for Christmas.

I try very hard to be low-key about Santa Claus, because of the way it affected me. I was shocked to the core when I learned he was a myth and still remember the scene with emotion. The people I trusted most had all been part of a big lie.

I don't want my children to feel that sense of betrayal. On the other hand, I don't want them to burst the Santa balloon for their friends and ruin Christmas for other families.

I feel as if I am swimming against a very strong current. I tell my son that Santa is a vague helper for Mom and Dad, but I know I can't get away with this much longer, and we can't emphasize the birth of Christ since we are not very religious. We think of Christmas as the birth of Jesus, whose message was love.

A. Parenthood is full of surprises and you're probably in for one of them.

While you were devastated to learn your parents had deceived you, your children may feel just as dismayed if you enlighten them too soon.

It's time to moderate your point of view, which will take a little forgiving first. Your parents weren't spreading the big lie; they were trying to envelop you in magic, in imagination, in fun -- in an old-fashioned fairy tale.

People have always found an excuse to give -- often anonymously -- and to shine some light on winter's darkest days, whether they were celebrating St. Lucia's Day or the winter solstice, Hanukah or Christmas.

While the birth of Jesus is indeed the message of love for Christians, Santa Claus is a symbol of giving.

In any case, Santa Claus brings the presents, and many of them, and religion plays a big role. This is especially true in Catholic countries, where parents also give small presents to their children on Jan. 6 to commemorate the gifts the wise men gave Jesus when they reached the manger.

In the United States and Canada, it is different. Religion is downplayed by many families. Santa Claus is advertised much more and the Christmas customs are as diverse as the countries.

This lets you turn Santa Claus into your own creation.

You'll undoubtedly feel better if Santa isn't a big deal in your house, but keep yourself out of the story. Instead of telling your sons that Santa is your helper, tell them Santa has many helpers, and no one knows which department store, or which street corner, has the real one -- a line that demystifies the myth a little, but not much.

You can make Santa work for you, however, by telling your children he'll never give them everything on their list, and he usually doesn't bring the toys that are advertised on TV. This will stop a lot of begging, and some TV watching too, at least when you're around.

Much of this Santa business will be secondary, however, if you teach your children that Christmas is more about giving than getting.

Unfortunately, children seldom think of giving presents until it's too late, and they may not consciously think about it then. These are the ones who go into sugar shock on Christmas morning, feeling cross and empty when all the gifts have been unwrapped and they didn't give any of them.

You need to help your children figure out what they can make for their grandparents and each other, and then to get the supplies together so they can.

With help, a preschooler can make a fine coat rack, by hammering four eightpenny nails into a 1-foot-long piece of wood and coloring it with crayons. Or he can curry peanuts, by shaking the oily kind in a bag with curry powder, dumping them in a colander and pouring the powdered nuts into a bottle. The coat rack may only seem beautiful to the child, and the curried peanuts may only taste good to the adult, but homemade presents always please children more than the ones they buy with their parents' money.

You'll also want to help your children clean up and fix up their outgrown toys, so you can give them to less fortunate children, and to help you bake a ham and collect canned goods for a soup kitchen. A child is never too young to know that the more he has, the more he has to give.

Some Santa Claus excitement will be inevitable, however, and you want to enter into this spirit with your children. Even though your feelings got hurt when you were little, you don't have the right to take their fun away. There will come a time when they learn the truth, but if you handle Christmas in a balanced way, the revelation will be another milestone on the way to growing up, not a gravestone to mark the end of childhood. Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.