I always knew there would come a time when some kid told Annie that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but I wasn’t ready for it to happen yesterday.

Now you might think it’s a little early to be talking about Santa Claus, but my local mall wouldn’t agree. Annie and I were there for a daddy/daughter ice cream date when we saw a sign with Santa on it.

“What does it say, Dad?”

“It says Santa will arrive at the mall in just three weeks!”

Annie was very excited about this, and spent the entire time at the ice cream shop discussing Santa.

Afterward Annie wanted to go to the mall’s play area, so I took her there and let her run around with a couple little girls her age. The three of them were very cute. In fact, one of the girls had been at the ice cream shop at the same time as us, and introduced herself to Annie by saying, “Didn’t I see you at the ice cream store?”

You could have heard a record scratch, though, when two boys of six or seven strolled in. They were straight out of central casting for the kind of kids who play bullies in the movies, and it only took a couple minutes before they had the girls trying to climb a bench and stand on the back rest. I ran over, pulled Annie down, and told her and the other girls that it wasn’t something little girls should be doing.

“But it’s okay for us big boys to do, right?” the boys said.

“You guys shouldn’t do it either,” I replied as I looked around in vain for their parents.

I was ready to take Annie home right then when I got a phone call. Only a minute or so passed before Annie tugged on my hand, distressed.

“Come on, Dad. You have to tell them!”

“Tell who what?”

“Tell those boys that Santa is real!”

I was totally caught off-guard by this but had a pretty good idea of what happened – Annie must’ve mentioned that Santa was coming to the mall, and the older kids dropped the “not real” bomb.

I felt sick to my stomach as Annie pulled me over to the boys.

“So I heard you guys don’t think Santa is real. Well, he’s going to be here in just three weeks. Come back then and he’ll be sitting right over there!”

Annie nodded as if to say, “Preach!”

“Santa’s never brought us anything,” one of the boys said. “Our parents buy our gifts.”

Annie swiveled toward me, awaiting my response.

“Then you REALLY need to come back in a few weeks to talk to him. I’m thinking he doesn’t have your address. Have you written a letter to Santa in the last couple years?”

The boys shared a look, then shrugged.

“Yeah, you really need to keep writing those letters every year.”

I thought I’d done a pretty good job of undoing the damage, but on the drive home Annie asked, “Why did those boys say Santa wasn’t real?”

I felt the anger rise in my throat as I replied that, while there are a lot of nice older kids, some like to tease little kids. (I actually think all little kids should hear that because it’s true.)

“Why?” Annie asked. “That’s mean.”

“It is mean. And I’ll tell you something else…” I was getting pretty worked up at this point. “Remember how those boys said Santa never brought them anything? I think I know why it is. It’s because they’re naughty!”

“They tried to climb up the bench.”

“What do I tell you? Naughty!”

“I’m not naughty, though.”

“No, you’re not, and if you continue to be good Santa will bring you some great presents. That’s a promise.”

Annie hasn’t mentioned what happened since then, and I’m hoping that she continues to believe in Santa for a little while longer. Unfortunately, she’s now been introduced to the idea that Santa isn’t real. I know some parents think it’s best to tell kids the truth about Santa right away, but I think Annie deserves a little Santa magic in her life – at least for a couple more years!