A man dressed as Santa Claus walks through a street in Hamburg, Germany. (Charisius / AFP / Getty Images )
"Don't worry if it's expensive," I overheard my 8-year-old tell her 5-year-old sister the other night. "Santa makes all this stuff at the North Pole. Mom and Dad don't have to buy it."
My daughters were seated at the dining table, cutting pictures out of a stack of toy catalogs. They had been busy for half an hour, clipping and pasting. They had informed my wife and me they planned to mail a scrapbook presentation to Santa this year. In the post-literate era, why waste time using words when you can send a picture? That way there's no mistaking your glossy desires.
I saw the skeletons of catalogs spread out before them. They had snipped holes in nearly every page. I looked at the growing stack of wishes and suggested that they might want to pare down their order.
I told them I had heard that Santa was only guaranteeing delivery of one gift per well-behaved child this year. I like to use the phrase "well-behaved child" often in their presence from Thanksgiving until Dec. 25. My oldest looked up at me with the kind of disdain that is only possible when you are 8.
"But Dad," she said. "He brought us lots of stuff last year."
I told them a lot more children had been born since Mr. Claus' last visit. If Santa had to bring more than one gift to every child on Christmas Eve, pretty soon he wouldn't have any room in his sleigh.
"Do you know how many children there are in the world?" I asked her.
I could see the calculation clicking away in her mind. She has begun to discover the world of multiplication, and numbers hold a new fascination for her.
"A lot," she said.
I asked her how she feels when her sister gets more than she does.
"Not good," she said. And then, in that kind, nascent wisdom of hers I adore, she said, "I guess it's better for everyone to get something."
Later that night as my wife and I lay in bed, I said I wasn't looking forward to a moment I knew was coming soon, when the oldest would look us in the eye and ask if there really is a Santa Claus.
How will she ever believe in anything again? I asked.
Before long my daughter would discover that you can't always get what you want, that friends betray you, love comes and goes, you struggle against great odds to find happiness and then your health fails and you die.
My wife smiled at me and patted my arm.
"One thing at a time," she said. "Besides, she'll love it when she realizes she can help us keep the secret from her little sister."
The next morning when my daughters came down to breakfast, they handed me an envelope addressed to the North Pole. I looked inside at the pictures and told them I was sure Santa would bring them the one thing they had each chosen.
And then I realized what I would tell my oldest when she finally does ask that inevitable question.
First, I will share with her all the answers I heard as a child. The same ones that brought me comfort as they have for generations. The same ones she will probably tell her children one day.
And then I will tell her about one more gift that Santa brings us all, the consolation prize, the one for finding out. It comes every year. I could be wrapping a present, listening to a carol or sizing up an overpriced spruce for the living room, and suddenly there it is: the ability to know what hope feels like when it fills your heart.
I will tell my daughter that we're not born knowing what 4 times 6 is, any more than we are born with the awareness of what hope might be. We must learn to tie our shoelaces and write our names, and we must learn how to believe in something and have faith.
In the world she will inherit, I will tell her, it is a good thing to have believed in Santa Claus, and a better thing to understand that the greatest gifts are not the ones we clip from catalogs and paste on pages but the ones, like the spirit of Christmas, that renew the soul.
Josef Anderson is a writer who lives in Hollywood.