I had an unexpected discussion with my just-turned 8-year-old a couple of weeks ago. At a much younger age than I expected, she guessed the truth about Santa.
As a child, I found out at about the same age, but the sole reason was that I read it in one of those very silly children's books that gives away the secret. I am not super analytical by nature, and I don't think that I would have reasoned it out, at least not that young. My little G., on the other hand, is very logical and is a deep thinker, and she basically just figured it out on her own.
While she actually did not ask me for the truth directly, she presented a number of reasoned out points which she said were making her not believe. While I am comfortable continuing this long Christian tradition with my children, I was not comfortable making up a lot of fictional answers to her reasonable points, and so I told her.
Interestingly, her first reaction was a sort of relief - relief, I believe, that what she was thinking did indeed make sense. Her second reaction was some sadness. I remember when I found out as a child being so disappointed that there was no source of gifts that was not limited by budget or other parental concerns.
However, for her part, G started to cry a little and said, "You mean some kids don't get presents?"
I wanted to cry myself at this; I was so touched that her first reaction was to think of others. I told her that is why we are here - to help each other - and that is why we have donated toys at Christmas time and filled shoeboxes for poor kids and so on. I had to really assure her that everyone wanted all children to have toys at Christmas, and that there were many groups that would help parents who couldn't afford presents.
"It's a myth," I told her, "a legend." These are concepts she is very familiar with, as she loves Greek mythology. We have also talked many times about a legend having its roots in history, but being embellished over time.
She seemed to accept this explanation, and we talked about St. Nicholas. I have always told my children that Santa is St.Nicholas, and I love him so much that they know all about him. She also never questioned the reality of St. Nicholas during the discussion; she had already intuited the way the tradition had developed from the real historical events of his life.
I told her what I really believe: that Santa is the spirit of St. Nicholas living on through all of us. The spirit of giving in secret, without a chance of being thanked, is what Santa is all about.
We talked about how this is a big secret know only to "big people," and of course we talked about how she couldn't share it with other kids. I told her that although I was disappointed when I found out about Santa, my best memories of the tradition are from when I was older, when I was able to help my mom be Santa to my younger siblings.
I asked her, "Would you like to help me and to be my 'elf' now?"
"Oh yes!" Her eyes shone as she said it. And I knew: the spirit of St. Nicholas is alive.