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This year's could be the last visit to Santa

| Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011

A sense of finality crept into the festivity.

"This probably is the last time we do this," I told my wife somberly. She nodded.

We were engaged in a ritual we took for granted, a ritual slipping irrevocably from our grasp: the Santa mall visit.

My 8-year-old daughter conversed congenially with the red-suited guy in the chair. Observing the proceedings with us was her 11-year-old sister, exasperated about having to indulge such childish foolishness when she could be browsing the Wii offerings at Game Stop.

She has kept up the pretense for her sister's sake, but she quit the Santa sit-downs several years ago. As eventually happens, she lost faith in a morbidly obese man's ability to slink down a chimney in the dead of night, deposit presents that don't have a trace of soot on them and somehow escape without setting off the security alarm or being savagely attacked by the dog.

Many parenting websites indicate that kids stop believing in Santa between the ages of 8 and 10. (That variance apparently depends on whether parents get caught in the act of putting presents under the tree in the predawn Christmas hours.)

Our 8-year-old, then, is right on schedule. It came as no surprise that skepticism and cynicism started to seep into the foundation of her belief, causing it to lean at an odd angle.

After recently checking the computer Internet history so I could locate a site I had visited, I saw something that startled me. I immediately went downstairs to find my wife.

"You didn't happen to Google, 'Is Santa dead,' did you?" I asked.

"No," she replied, befuddled. "Why would I do that?"

Days later, I overheard a snippet of a phone conversation between my daughter and one of her best friends.

"I looked and they weren't there," she said in a low, conspiratorial tone. "Where else do you think they would hide them?"

Significant cracks had formed in the dam holding back the inevitable. It was up to me to be a one-man Army Corps of Engineers when she came to me recently and asked, "Daddy, do you believe in Santa?"

"What I believe," I told her, "is that as long as you believe in Santa, he'll still bring you presents."

I realize that's not as eloquent as Francis Church's editorial response to Virginia O'Hanlon in the New York Sun more than a century ago. But if you think that was Church's first draft, if you think he didn't meticulously craft that sucker over the course of several days, you are hopelessly naive.

I'm not naive enough to think my daughter hasn't figured things out. But I believe my response prompted her to ponder this: If she gets presents provided she believes in Santa, what fate awaits her on Christmas morning if she publicly proclaims she does not?

Blame her youth for her failure to pose that key follow-up question.

I fully anticipate her asking it before next Christmas, which is why I savored this visit with Santa — even though I knew that she knew the truth.

We were complicit in creating the illusion. But what an illusion it was.

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