I’ve written a fair amount about Christmas, and how our family celebrates Christmas. We honor Santa with a nod to the big guy, but we don’t go all-out with lumps of coal and threats of surveillance. Santa was one of those things about parenthood that I put entirely too much thought into at the beginning, and then ended up enjoying in spite of myself, and in spite of my efforts to make it all make sense. In short, we wanted the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and all the crazy gift-giving frenzy that accompanies it, to mirror God’s outrageous, no-strings-attached love as much as it could. A recent New York Times parenting piece shows that I’m not alone in putting entirely too much thought into it, and then feeling angsty about all the thought I was putting into it.

This year, my husband and I sent our firstborn to middle school. These still feel like the days of miracle and wonder, but these specific middle school days are also the days I’ve dreaded since this baby was born. He is as awkward as a baby bird, but he’s also cooler than any other middle schooler I’ve ever known, and he is supremely confident in his place in the world. I don’t know how that happened, but I’ll take it and say thank you. He is an easygoing kid. At eleven years old, he’s about 5’5″, with a giant shoe size and legs for days, but he still hugs me every day, and still has the sweetest little boy voice. He is the definition of a good sport. He opens doors for people, and writes thank-you notes with the handwriting of an 18th-century cartographer. He is a gentle soul with a strong sense of who he is. He is an independent thinker and can make a mean breakfast, but he also is sweetly naive about a lot of things in life. He’s probably especially innocent and naive about those things where he chooses to wear blinders, because they’re just too good to examine too thoroughly. Enter: Santa Claus.

My husband and I wanted to keep the Santa magic alive as long as we could, but we also wanted to keep our kid alive, and hopefully not beaten to a bloody pulp on the school bus for his sweet, innocent beliefs. So, we decided to pull the plug on old Father Christmas. Because we are (not) awesome, we decided to break the news on the heels of three vaccines and treatment for a brutal skin infection, because dear Lord, middle school just sucks all around, so there’s no good time to deliver this news. We did try to soften the blow a bit by taking him out to a really nice steak dinner. Nothing says “you’re a man now” like prime Texas beef.

Beforehand, I did the solid prep work that any good 21st century parent does: I googled it. When I started the search with “how to tell your kid about…” the first suggestion from Google was “divorce.” Grateful that I wasn’t breaking that news, I scrolled down to “Santa” and read a few articles, but nothing resonated. Once we were sitting down together, I started with a gentle approach. “What are your thoughts on Santa?” Our friends were incredulous that he actually still believed, and so I thought we might have an easy out — maybe he already knew, and he just wasn’t letting on? However, I wouldn’t get out of this so easily. “Well,” my young scholar replied, “there’s really no proof that he DOESN’T exist.”

Hope springs eternal.

Our kid still believed in Santa, even though all of it was really too good to be true, because he so desperately wanted it to be true. Our fact-minded child clung to the belief of something that was so wonderful that he didn’t want to question it.

So I was forced to say it. All of those gifts, for all of those years, were given in the spirit of Santa Claus, but they were actually physically placed in your stocking, by a different, actual human. Namely, me. My husband nudged me from across the table to go ahead and rip off the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy band-aids while we were at it. Brutal.

The kid took it well, and even thanked us for telling him. He told us he appreciated our honesty. (Who IS this child?) And then we spent the rest of the dinner recounting the times that he was surprised on Christmas morning by the joy that waited for him. We reminded him of the Christmas when he was four years old, when he woke up to an entire village full of train tracks, along with wooden trains from the mythical Island of Sodor in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine. Most of the toy trains he received that year had been discontinued by the toy manufacturer, and he knew they were very rare, and so we pulled that surprise off with an explanation then that “only Santa could manage to produce this much awesomeness.” Now, we told our middle school-bound kid that not Santa, but a dear friend with a sentimental streak had saved those trains from his children’s early childhood, and he tenderly handed them to us as though they were the keys to unlock the secret of Christmas magic. (And they were.) We now told our kid that even though my husband, an Episcopal priest, had stayed up late for Christmas Eve church services, he stayed up even later to assemble the most outrageous track configuration he could imagine. He stayed up late, even knowing how tired he’d be the next day, because he wanted those train tracks to be magical. All because we loved him.

We reminded him of the Christmas of Gatorade and gum…all given because we love him, with practicality and our personal preferences thrown out the window. Our kid recounted a specific year that had slipped out of my memory, where Santa had filled his stocking with a very specific kind of miniature lego kit. That Santa. That love.

We told our kid that the love that was poured into those gifts hasn’t changed. We told him that sometimes, little kids need a really concrete way to think about things, and Santa is a great way to think about the outrageously generous love of Christmas. We told him that this was it — that we weren’t holding out on any other mythical entities that he might be wondering about. And we told him that now, he gets to share that love with others. By the time we paid the bill at the restaurant, he was already planning how to show that love to his little brother, and how he could keep that magic alive.

I hope our firstborn remembers that Christmas-morning feeling of being outrageously loved, and carries it with him into adulthood. I hope he remembers a love that can make seemingly impossible things possible. I hope he holds in his heart the magic of a love that has no strings attached, no earning potential examined, and no preconditions. I hope he remains as forgiving as he has been with us, as we clumsily try to explain all of this to him, even when it’s breaking our own hearts to do it. I hope that middle school doesn’t drive us all over the edge. And I hope that all of us can retain a bit of magic and mystery in our lives as we contemplate “the love that surpasses knowledge — that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”