Clara, magical thinker. (Jon Dodson)

I’ve never had much of an opinion, one way or the other, about whether my kids should believe in Santa.

We’ve always played along with the story in our house, but my four older kids – all sons – have believed to varying ages: the oldest two boys, now 16 and 14, gave it up by the second grade or so, while my second two, now 10 and 8, still claim to believe, but have begun to make it clear it’s all for show.

The way I’ve always seen it, Santa is about the experience a child needs during the holiday, not the parents. If a child really wants to believe, she will cling to the Saint Nick story until the bitter end, pretending she didn’t really see those toys marked “FROM SANTA” in the back of the minivan that one night Mom and Dad went shopping alone, and convincing herself to believe lame excuses like, “Oh, Santa asked for our help picking this one out” when parents make a faux pas. I know, because I’ve been that kid.

And, in my experience with my four boys, kids who don’t care as much, whose childlike belief in the magic of the holiday isn’t tied up in this one particular aspect of it, seem to give up the belief readily and without much fuss, letting themselves be easily convinced by a more cynical friend, or noticing with eyes unclouded by sentiment that the Santa wrapping paper has been in a Target bag in the hall closet for the last month.

So when the yearly “should you tell your kids about Santa or is the whole thing a huge, disillusionment-inducing way to lie to your kids” debate rages, I’ve mostly stayed on the sidelines. After all, I’ve never jumped through any crazy hoops to extend my kids’ belief, or done much at all except go along with whatever they seem to feel about the jolly old elf. As a Santa-neutral mom, I’ve always felt like I was safe from judgment and not particularly interested in joining the fray.

But.

My 5-year-old daughter, Clara, I fear, is about to throw a wrench into this whole theory.

Clara is imaginative. She loves fairies and fantasy and magic and play-pretend. Clara also asks a lot of questions and seems to notice everything, remembering with awe-inspiring clarity that one offhand comment I made about maybe getting ice cream next week, or the fact that she asked for a particular Littlest Pet Shop raccoon six months before her birthday. (Of course I got the squirrel instead. Seriously, they all look the same to me.)

Maybe it won’t be this year. Maybe it won’t be next year. But soon – and with a persistence and inquisitiveness that will surely try everyone’s patience – I know this to be true: Clara’s going to start asking tough questions about the Big Man In The Red Suit. And I’m just not sure how I’m going to handle it. After all, Clara is the baby of the family, the youngest of five. She represents the fleetingness of childhood, and has marked my final opportunities to experience the holiday through the eyes of a baby, a toddler, and now, a little girl. And this year, along with the warm buzz that always accompanies my favorite holiday, I feel an underlying sense of dread.

Will this be the last year she believes? Next year? Or the year after that? Whenever it happens, the day of truth is coming, and I don’t feel nearly as nonchalant about it as I did with the boys.

When you have a number of small children in the house, it can still feel like you have all the time in the world for make-believe and magic. But as it turns out, the number of firsts and lasts, of holidays all under one roof, of the times you’ll string popcorn or cut out cookies, of times you’ll wrap a gift and scrawl “Santa” in the “From” line on the tag, are painfully limited whether you have one child or 10.

I spent years longing to get to that light at the end of the tunnel: the time when all my kids would be bigger and more self-sufficient, when life would feel more orderly, when I’d have some time for myself. And I’m glad to be here. Still, Santa, like baby dolls and board books, LEGO and little shoes, is just one more symbol of a chapter firmly closing, its magic and mystery tightly caught between the pages. Once it’s closed, I can go back and re-read, but I can’t ever live it again. And Clara’s eventual evolution from belief to understanding will mark the definite end of an era.

In my imagination, I see myself clinging to Clara’s belief with all sorts of sitcom-worthy hijinks: stamping loudly around on the roof Christmas Eve, shaking bells loudly near Clara’s window; hiring a stout actor to be “caught” placing presents under the tree in a carefully-staged hoax. In reality, though, I will probably treat her waning belief the same way I’ve handled it with the other kids…at first, answering their questions with “What do YOU think?” then stalling, and finally, when the truth can no longer be delayed or camouflaged, coming out with it as gently as I can.

But somewhere, something inside me will wilt a little at the admission, the white-flag surrender to children growing up and growing older, moving on and eventually, moving out. I’ll wish for a time when I could casually hold their beliefs in my palms, shaping and embellishing at will.

And if I have to be honest, I’ll likely shed more than a few tears for the enlightenment of the last believer.

Meagan Francis is the creator of The Happiest Home blog and tweets @meaganfrancis.

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