Eleven-year-old Renee Gonzalez doesn't remember the name of the boy who spoiled her Christmas fantasy 4 years ago, but all the other details remain vivid in her mind.
"I was 7," recalls Renee, who lives in Orange. "It was right before Christmas. All of us kids were outside playing and we were all talking about what we were going to ask Santa Claus to get for us, and this 13-year-old boy walked up to us and said, 'You guys are all a bunch of dummies. Don't you know anything? There is no Santa Claus!'
"So then I was telling him that there was, 'cause my mom doesn't lie and stuff like that. And then he told me that 'your mom' was Santa Claus, and . . . at nighttime she would wait until you were sleeping and then she would put the presents under the Christmas tree."
With that, the teen-ager walked away.
"I didn't go home right away," Renee said. "I played with my friends and we were all talking about it for a long time, about maybe he might be lying to us." Finally, some of the children decided to go home and ask their parents for an explanation. Renee did the same.
"My mom said, 'Who told you that?' She wanted to go and find him. Then she was like . . . she tried to change the subject."
Renee said she was angry at her mother because "I thought she had lied to me. But my mom told me that (the boy) could be lying."
By Christmas Eve, the issue was still unresolved. Renee was almost completely convinced that the boy was right, but she didn't want to give up the idea that "there's this nice guy around who gives kids presents."
In previous years, "when I was really little," Renee said, "I used to sit at the window and wait for, like, reindeer, 'cause I'd seen a lot of movies and it showed them going through the sky and stuff, over the moon, so I figured that if I sat there and watched, I'd see them. But they never came."
So on her eighth Christmas Eve, Renee didn't bother to look for the reindeer. But when she woke up the next morning, the roller skates she had asked for were under the tree, and for a while she didn't worry about where they came from.
"A few weeks after Christmas, my mom and I started talking about it, and she told me then."
Since then, Renee hasn't bothered to set out the traditional milk and cookies by the tree. But 37-year-old Connie Loughrey does, even though there are no children in her house, and somehow they always disappear before morning.
Yes, Renee, there is a Santa Claus, at least in the personal and professional opinion of Loughrey, a marriage, family and child counselor and director of Ourself Counseling Assn. in Santa Ana.
Loughrey and other Orange County child development experts say they believe in Santa Claus on two fronts: the fantasy itself and its value in helping children deal with a world that tends to be harsh, humorless and stressful.
"Yes, it's wrong to give children delusions," says David Young, a psychologist who practices in Orange and Irvine. "But the idea of giving them a myth to believe in is OK."
"Life is tough," Loughrey says. "We're bombarded so much by reality. The earthquake in Armenia, the violence in other places, we see them instantly. We need to stay in touch with the child in us. We need imagination, and beliefs in some positive things."
"It's good to believe that what you dream of really can happen," says Shelley Kramer, a Tustin psychologist.
"Sharing a fantasy with children and playing up that fantasy is not harmful," says psychologist Jane Parnes, director of counseling and mental health at Cal State Fullerton.
"In fact, it might be very beneficial. Children live so much in fantasy; this is one time when adults tune into their wavelength. It's harmful only if the parent's intention is generating control by saying, 'You'd better be good or Santa won't bring you. . . .' That's not something I would promote."
"You don't want to create a picture of somebody real who isn't real," says Gene Bedley, principal of El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine and father of three grown children. "But I don't think it really confused our kids."
Bedley says he sees plenty of skeptical youngsters at school. "I've heard them talking . . . you'll have one who believes and another who doesn't. They're pretty sophisticated, too. They'll say, 'How does he get to all those houses? I've flown on an airplane and I know how fast it goes.' "
Experts say that what parents tell their children about the jolly old elf can be tricky--almost as tricky as handling that other tough childhood question: "Where do babies come from?"
With both questions, says Young, "when they're old enough to start asking, that's when you should start telling them in a way that's age-appropriate."
The best way to answer the question, "Is there a Santa Claus?" is with another question, Young says. "Ask the child what they think. That helps clue you in on where they're at."