It happened on my birthday, of all days, a year ago. The boys were seven-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half. For a few months prior, whenever Santa Claus came up in conversation, whichever boy was speaking would cast me or my wife a sidelong glance and say pointedly, “a.k.a. Mom and Dad!” and the conversation would continue without further comment. So the bubble had already burst, they just lacked official confirmation — which notably they didn’t explicitly seek until we were sitting all together in the living room, getting ready to watch my birthday movie selection. When they did, I asked if they really wanted to know the truth. Archer, who is younger, just barely did, in my judgment. Jonah was burning for it.
So I opened the Wikipedia page about the real St. Nicholas and talked about him for a bit, and how he became renowned as a gift-giver. He was an ordinary man, so of course he died; but the gift-giving idea lived on.
Today, around Christmas every year, the spirit of St. Nicholas takes hold of parents everywhere. So although there’s no guy with a magical sleigh, and other parts of the story certainly are made up, still, in a very real way — and I told them this is honestly exactly what I believe — there is a Santa Claus, and Santa Claus is the idea of giving, and he/it really does travel around the whole world in a single night! He just needs us parents to do his work for him. You’ve heard of Santa’s elves? We’re it.
The boys seemed pretty happy with this explanation. Jonah, for his part, was happy merely to have Santa Claus officially debunked. I repeated my point about the reality of Santa Claus, and Archer said, “I half-believe you and I half-believe Jonah.” “Making up your own mind. I love that,” I told him.
Soon after that we let the boys see Batman Begins, despite some concerns about age-appropriateness. There’s the scene where Bruce Wayne decides he has to have a costumed alter ego:
“As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” The point being that if Bruce Wayne is ever injured or killed (or grows too old, which is the premise of Batman Beyond), someone else can don the suit and take over as Batman. In a way this is exactly what happened with St. Nicholas — the Bruce Wayne of gift-giving. Now that was a Santa explanation the kids could relate to.