“Do you think Santa is actually real?”

My six-year-old asked my nine-year-old this question in the backseat of my car recently, and I tried to squelch the “of COURSE he is!” that was dying to escape from my throat.

The nine-year-old, who is the tallest innocent I’ve ever met, said that yes, he believed that Santa is real. The six-year-old had his hang-ups. “What would make you say that he isn’t?” I asked from the driver’s seat, imagining a list of logistical challenges that one man might have distributing gifts around the world.

Instead I got:

“I just can’t believe that he thinks we’re so good,” he said. “I mean, everybody sins. All the time.”

As they say in my home state, uff-da.

Our nine-year-old with a very Texas Santa. The six-year-old skeptic would not go near him.

I’ll unpack some of that for you. The “sin” talk has less to do with the fact that he is the child, grandchild, and nephew of priests, and more to do with the fact that he attends a Baptist after-school program. The kids hear the Word of the Lord every afternoon, and a lot of it seems pretty sin-heavy. The “Santa thinks we’re so good” part of my son’s narrative is our family’s counter-cultural move against the “naughty/nice” trope of the Santa story. The entire “You’d better watch out…” theme has been so thoroughly dismantled in our house that our kids are practically cultural pariahs this time of year. Santa brings gifts at our house regardless of behavior, and those gifts remind us of the gift of Jesus at Christmas. If all of this sounds a bit “off,” it probably is.

I almost didn’t “do” Santa at all.

I’m going to give you a moment with that. I am a white, Christian, middle-class lady with two kids, I am not part of a Mennonite cult, and I almost didn’t make Santa happen at our house.

When our kids were babies, I was terrified of ruining them, and I didn’t feel like I should lie to them about an omniscient obese guy who doles out unequal amounts of stuff to the naughty and nice lists. It was the opposite of what we wanted to teach our kids about the unearned gift of Christmas—that “good” people get more and “bad” people get less. I agonized over it for months, and ended up joining Team Santa, but not Team “Sees You When You’re Sleeping” Santa. I figured that my kids would be weird enough as clergy kids (not to mention being the children of a neurotic mom), and so I didn’t need to add the “we don’t do Santa in our family” weirdness to that mix. But also, there’s something to be said about the magical world of reindeer and elves and sleighs, and childhood is entirely too short, and too short on magic, these days.

When I was in late elementary school or junior high and starting to have my suspicions about the big guy in the red suit, my mom had just read a book by Leo Buscaglia about love or some nonsense, and filled our stockings with fruit that year. FRUIT. I was so mad. Part of it was my own greed and being a spoiled child of the late 20th century—who wants an orange when you can just grab one out of the fridge? But part of it was the feeling that the magic was over. My poor mom was just trying to do a good thing. To be honest, I don’t even remember what magical gifts were contained in the stockings before The Year of the Fruit, but I do remember the outrage I felt that we were being treated like grown folks on Christmas morning. Where was the magic? (At this point, my mom was probably regretting the fact that she had produced any magic at all, ever, and I can’t really blame her for that.) I wanted to have that magic for my kids, and preferably not in the form of an orange.

All of this complex overthinking came home to roost when I read a Mockingbird piece several years ago about the Elf on the Shelf. In it, David Zahl explores what it means to “do” Santa without adopting the “naughty/nice” paradigm. After reading that, I had hope. We could take the magic without the “goods for services rendered” part. (Side note: when our kids requested the Elf at our house, we had a woolen version of the magi magically come to life overnight instead. The Three Kings traipse through the house and leave notes and observations instead of tattling reconnaissance.) I realized it was possible to have the magic without the tit-for-tat exchange.

And so, we ended up telling the story of Santa to our kids, and leaving out cookies and reindeer food. We watch the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Santa Tracker, and hang stockings for him to fill. What is most unbelievable to my six-year-old is not that an elderly man travels the world in one night, with flying mammals, on a sleigh laden with gifts. They have suspended disbelief enough to buy into ALL of that, even though every human they’ve ever known struggles to unload the dishwasher and fold a load of laundry in the same evening. They completely buy in to the story that Santa lives on the North Pole and sends out “agents” to shopping malls and charity events this time of year to collect information about what kind of toys they want.

But my six-year-old cannot wrap his mind around the idea that he brings these gifts to us even though we are not well behaved all of the time. My son is old enough, and self-aware enough, to know that this “being good” gig is hard. And he can understand a world where good behavior is rewarded. (We’re no slouches on positive reinforcement in non-gift situations, and I know there’s a complex first grade “ticket” system involving praise-worthy behavior on an individual level, a classroom level, and even broken down by tables in the classroom.) He understands a world that is fair. He is also now old enough to be skeptical of things that are “too good to be true,” and to understand the concept of “you get what you pay for.”

I can’t blame him for his disbelief in an all-knowing man who gives us gifts we don’t deserve, and that’s the crux of grace and the message of Mockingbird. It is so hard to believe, and so jarring in our world of achievement ladders and good behavior tickets. (To be clear—I’m not knocking the good behavior tickets in first grade. I think they’re brilliant.) But the message of Christmas in our family is not about positive reinforcement or good behavior. It is that we all received this undeserved gift of a baby who came to save the world.

I think my son has come around to Santa for another year, unbelievable as the whole idea may be. It helps that the chimney on our home is falling apart, and we’ve told the kids that it might have something to do with the “bowl full of jelly” that squeezed through it last Christmas. I won’t deny that I love to see their little faces light up on Christmas morning when they see the gifts that Santa brought, and the genuine surprise every year that it happened again.

This too-good-to-be-true gift is our Christmas. We don’t deserve it, and we didn’t earn it…“but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”