I'd run the scenario through my mind hundreds of times. I was certain I'd be ready when the moment came.
But when the fateful question emerged, I panicked.
"Daddy, is Santa Claus real?"
I'd heard similar questions before and parried them with ease:
"Do you believe in Santa, Daddy?" he'd asked.
"Do you?" I'd replied. He'd say yes, and that had been that.
But where the Socratic method was enough to sidetrack him a few weeks ago, it didn't seem to work with a question fired point-blank.
"Is Santa Claus real?" The only retort that bubbled to the surface of my feverish brain was the totally inadequate "Are you?"
I mumbled something like "I've seen a lot of people I thought were Santa Claus." But that was a dead-end, so I excused myself and scurried downstairs to consult the family's real expert on Santa: Mommy.
"Ask him if he believes," she said.
"Too late in the conversation for that," I said.
"Tell him you've never seen Santa personally," she recommended.
"No good," I said. "That'll leave him wondering who he's been visiting all these years." Besides: his younger brother was in the room with him.
"Then lie," she said.
But I'm a terrible liar. And I wasn't ready to sign off on the end of innocence for our first-born.
So I returned to the bedroom with a book from my childhood.
"Almost a hundred years ago," I explained, "a little girl asked the same question in a letter to the editor of a New York newspaper. Brush your teeth and get into your jammies, and I'll read you her letter and one of the best answers ever written to the question you asked me."
The brushing and dressing went remarkably quickly, and soon we were all jammed into bed.
And I read the words eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlow wrote to the New York Sun in 1897:
"Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus....Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?"
And I read the inspired answer from the paper's editor, Charles Dana:
"Your little friends...have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.
"The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see....
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist....
"He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
Dana may have been right. Maybe he was wrong.
But the important thing is that, by the time I was done reading his answer, the kids had forgotten the question.
So Santa makes glad the heart of childhood in this home...for at least one Christmas more.
? Oak Parker Charlie Meyerson, who contributed frequently to WEDNESDAY JOURNAL from 1991 to 1993, is now a senior producer at chicagotribune.com, where he serves up a daily e-mail news column, Daywatch: www.chicagotribune.com/daywatch. He is also a correspondent for WGN-AM 720. The young innocents referred to in this piece are now students at Oak Park and River Forest High School.