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    When Santa Stops Being Real

    When your child starts guessing the truth about St. Nick.

    Follow Your Child's Lead continued...

    "A friend of my son's spilled the beans about Santa last year," recalls Caroline Jennings of Bellevue, Wash., mother of a seven-year-old. "Ian came home asking if we are really the ones who buy his Christmas presents. We made a joke of it and said, 'You know we're too cheap to buy you presents!' But we also asked him about what he thinks. What it came down to is that Ian knows there's no Santa, but he really doesn't want us to come out and say it and ruin his holiday fantasy."

    Just as kids give you signals when they're ready to give up Santa, they also let you know when they're not. "If your child isn't ready to hear the truth, they simply won't accept it -- or if they're very young, they may truly not even comprehend what you are saying," says Egger. She knows from experience: When her children were six and three years old, she inadvertently read them a story that explicitly said there is no Santa. When the story was over, she found that the message hadn't registered with either child.

    Carrying on the Christmas Spirit

    Elliott and Egger agree that the key issue is not so much when to break the news to your child -- his peers will probably take care of that -- but how to convert the belief in Santa into other expressions of the holiday spirit.

    "Tell your child that the rituals associated with Santa are just one way of expressing the joy of giving and your love for them," says Egger. "If you have younger kids, let the older ones be responsible for stuffing stockings and being Santa's helper."

    This year, my son Justin still wants to put out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, but he also wants to be the one to put the jingle bells in the fireplace for his six-year-old brother, Drew. He wants to play Santa himself, too, and donate some toys to a day care center for homeless children. I think a part of him will always believe in Santa, but he's also finding more mature ways to express the Christmas spirit.

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