It is the night before Christmas 1960 and the word in my neighborhood is that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

My older childhood chum, Allen Ray, has told this to everybody and to prove it, he takes us inside his house and shows us, hidden behind the bath towels in the bathroom, a Daisy BB gun.

So the gang goes over to my house and we look in the bathroom behind the bath towels and -- nothing! We go into my parents' closet -- nothing. We ransack the house -- but no toys. Because all of our parents are at work and we are out of school, we ransack everybody's house. But no toys are found.

So we poke fun at Allen Ray. There is a Santa Claus, it's just that he's not coming to see this naughty little bugger and his parents know it, so they bought him a BB gun so he could shoot himself.

Deep down, though, I think Allen Ray is right -- but he has warned us: If you tell your parents there is no such thing as Santa Claus, no more toys.

As a result, we have boys in the neighborhood 16 and 17 years old who write letters to Santa and go try to sit on his lap at Sears. At 10 p.m., they are home in bed saying they don't want elves to put coal dust in their eyes.

Some of the parents have gone to such great lengths to make the dream of Santa come true that they have no idea how to wake their children up to reality.

I am one of those kids. I like the idea of a sleigh full of toys. Not far from my home in Shreveport, La., is the Barksdale Air Force Base. There are always lights in the sky. So my sisters and I play a game. Are those the lights from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or just another B52? Who is brave enough to stay in the window long enough to find out?

After so many false alarms, I finally pull my younger sisters aside and tell them what Allen Ray said. My baby sister starts to cry. I remind her what Santa says about crybabies, but it's too late. My parents want to know what's wrong and my heart sinks as she begins to "tell it."

"So you don't believe in Santa Claus," my father says to me. I didn't say that. I just repeated what Allen Ray said. My mother says it seems like someone has been inside her closet. My father says he noticed the same thing. I notice that my shoes are untied, but somehow I keep lacing my thumb up and have to start over and over again.

Then the doorbell rings. My sisters scream, "Sannaclaw!" They jump into bed and pull the covers over their heads. They refuse to let me in with shoes on, so I slide under the bed. Maybe this will convince my parents that I, too, am a believer.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been on best behavior, which consists doing my chores without being asked. But something is different this year. My sisters have made up long lists of toys they want from Santa. All I want is a speed bike and I don't even leave a note. They have made cookies for him and left them in a dish alongside a glass of milk. The way I figure it, if Santa doesn't show up soon, that milk is going to spoil and if he drinks it he's going to die.

Hey, that doesn't sound like a true believer. Maybe Allen Ray is right. But I still don't want to believe him. I mean, without Santa all you have is the Christmas pageant, after which you are handed a paper bag filled with fruits and nuts. I want toys!

"Could you come out to the car with me?" my father says, peeking under the bed. And risk running into Santa? I wonder aloud. He laughs. "Ho, ho, ho."

Oh oh.

And lo and behold, when he opens the trunk of the car, there is everything on my sisters' toy lists. I feel sick, like I've been punished for growing up.

"Your bike's in the garage," Dad says. Now I feel much better.

So you're Santa Claus, I say to him. Wrong, my dad replies.

And as I eat my sisters' homemade cookies while assembling their doll house, I learn the secret of who Santa Claus is -- and will be from now on.