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When our foster child asks if Santa is real, this is what I’ll say

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According to my mother, my older brother believed in Santa Claus for “too long.” Afraid other kids would make fun of him, she read him Helen Siiteri’s classic, “The Adventures of Nicholas.”

When she closed the book, my brother was in tears and puzzled. “You lied to me?” he asked.

For me, the unmasking of Santa happened in a completely different way. Older kids on the schoolyard spilled the beans and when I confronted my mother, she asked me to pretend I still believed for my father’s sake. He loved setting out the presents and making a big production out of Christmas morning.

Many years ago, my mother’s copy of the Helen Siiteri book came into my possession and my younger self intentionally saved it to read to my children one day. I won’t be doing that, though. Instead, I’ll be telling my kids Santa is real.

My husband and I are foster parents to a sibling set. The first two of the children arrived in our home on Dec. 22, 2015. The oldest was 2½; the younger not yet a year. I didn’t know what they’d been told about Santa, but I impulse-bought the only age-appropriate toys on the drugstore shelf: A Mrs. Potato Head, a My Little Pony matching game and a Fisher-Price stacking-doughnut set. I put them, unwrapped, under our tree.

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Over the years, these girls have been joined in our home by their younger sister and younger half brother. Santa isn’t a big part of our holiday conversation. I don’t leverage him to get good behavior; it’s not our tradition to write letters with a list of wishes, and we don’t have an Elf on the Shelf. But Santa is part of the zeitgeist, so they know about him from playmates and TV.

Every year, our foster family agency has a big Christmas party. There’s lunch and crafts and face-painting. Santa comes for pictures and we leave with a giant bag of presents for each kid.

These presents are collected through toy drives and the agency’s staffers spend hours matching the donated presents to the children in their care. On a Friday night, volunteers swarm the agency for the annual wrapping party. The tags are signed “from Santa.” None of these volunteers have met the children.

It has become our family’s tradition to open these presents on Christmas instead of at the agency’s party. On Christmas Eve, I lay them under the tree after the kids are asleep, sometimes shaking a box near my ear, wondering what’s inside.

Christmas morning is magical for me, as well as for the kids. I have no idea what they’ll be receiving and being surprised rekindles my own childlike joy and wonder.

One year, after opening a purple scooter, the oldest yelled, “I knew Santa was real. I knew it!”

Unbeknown to me, when she posed for her picture with Santa, she whispered in his ear that she wanted a scooter. She’d never mentioned this desire to me or my husband and she later told me that was by design. She’d heard rumblings in her kindergarten class that Santa was a phony, so she’d concocted a test.

I was proud of her logic and my husband was impressed that she’d applied the scientific method. We were both thrilled the magic could continue for her a bit longer. Children in foster care lose so much — their families, their home, their cherished possessions — that it seemed only right that she could at least still have this.

Later, I marveled about the serendipity with some of the staff at the foster family agency and one of them told me she’d picked the scooter from the pile of donations because she knew our oldest loved purple. There is so much love in the remembering — and applying — of that detail.

It’s been nearly three years since our oldest received the scooter and more and more she suspects something is up with the Santa story as she knows it. When the time comes for this talk, I’ll be ready.

When she asks if Santa is real, I will explain to her that Santa is very, very real and very, very powerful. But Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole with elves and doesn’t drive a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Santa is not even always a he. “In fact,” I will say, “you’ve been Santa, although you didn’t know it at the time.”

I will tell her about the strangers who spent their time and money to buy a toy for a child they had never met. I will tell her about the strangers who organized the drives where these toys were collected and the strangers who gave up their Friday night to wrap them in festive paper topped off with a sparkly bow.

I will explain that every time a person shows kindness for a stranger, with no thought of reward for themselves, that is Santa and that Santa walks among us all year long, not just at Christmas.

Georgene Smith Goodin lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the cartoonist Robert Goodin. Follow her on Twitter @gsmithgoodin.

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