If you have kids or know kids, at some point one of them may come to you and ask you for the truth about Santa Claus. How will you answer the question? My wife remembers being devastated when she was told the truth. I don’t remember when or how I found out. This could be a sign that I repressed the traumatic memories, or just that my memory may be shot.

I have never been one to push the Santa tradition. When speaking with my nieces and nephews, I don’t say things like, “I hope Santa wasn’t watching you do that” or “What do you think Santa would say if he were here?” I’ve felt that Santa distracts from the Christ-centric nature of Christmas, so I’ve not done much as an adult to foster a belief in Santa with my family.

When my wife was a child and asked her mom about Santa, the response was often “Well, what do you think?” While it is very zen to answer a question with a question, I believe that if children are old enough to frame the question, they deserve a straight answer. So how exactly do you answer? Here’s one possible response that my wife and I have considered.

First, when a child wants answers about Santa, it’s time to go for a drive — just you and the child. Doing this is a great way to have some time alone, and you will have a captive audience since this answer will take a bit.

While in the car, it’s time to talk about Nicholas of Myra, a real man who lived about three hundred years after Christ’s birth. Nicholas was a kind man who did many good deeds for people. One story told about him is how he provided the dowry for some poor girls so they could be married. He put some gold into a bag and, depending on the version of the story, either tossed the bag of gold through an open window or dropped it down the chimney. The family later found the bag of gold in the stockings they had hung by the fire to dry. Because Nicholas was a good Christian man, he was made Bishop of the city of Myra, and after his death the Catholic Church declared him to be a saint — thus, Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas’ good deeds inspired other people to do likewise. Because he believed in doing good deeds anonymously, people started to do the same — and when they gave anonymous gifts, they would say that Saint Nicholas had done it. Saint Nicholas’ feast day is December 6th, and it is common in some parts of Europe for people to give gifts to each other on this day as a remembrance of Nicholas’ kindness. Since my wife has a Swedish and Dutch background, she has taught me to put out my shoes late on December 5th so they can be filled by Saint Nicholas that night.

In Holland, there are often parades with Saint Nicholas — or Sinterklaas, as he is known there — dressed in his bishop’s robes, arriving to greet the people. The picture above shows Sinterklaas’ arrival in the Dutch down of Sneek in 2005, courtesy of Wikipedia. It is from the Dutch Sinterklaas that we derive our American English term of “Santa Claus.” Now that you know the history behind Saint Nicholas and his ties to Santa Claus, you can see why Santa is sometimes referred to as “Saint Nick.”

So, yes, there was a real Saint Nicholas, and he did many good things for the people around him. But the modern idea of Santa Claus, who drives a sleigh with reindeer and lives at the North Pole, isn’t really true. The truth is, Santa doesn’t have to wear a red suit or a white beard. He doesn’t live at the North Pole or ride around in a sleigh. Santa Claus is the spirit of selfless giving. He is all the people who love you and who want to do loving things for you in secret.

When I was growing up, I remember my parents, brothers and I would deliver bags of groceries to families who could use them. We’d put the food on the doorstep, ring the bell, then run off to hide. That’s the spirit of giving we should have during Christmastime. My wife remembers that on the Christmas just after her father died, their family’s living room was filled with anonymous gifts from people who had read her father’s obituary in the newspaper, saw that he had left behind a wife and six kids, and just wanted to do something to help. That is also the spirit of giving we should have during Christmastime. It is this giving and thinking of others above oneself that makes me feel closer to Jesus Christ, and it is his birth we remember at Christmas.

Now that the child knows the truth about Santa Claus, he or she can follow in Saint Nicholas’ footsteps and do good works anonymously for others. As one father told his daughter, “Now that you know the truth, you are now Santa Claus, too. Be a good one.”

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