I thought I had years before I had to deal with this! I'm not ready to tell her the truth yet, but I hate lying. How should I respond?
It's a question many parents dread every holiday season. And as someone who dealt with a situation very similar to yours, I feel your pain, really. Whether it's a misstep or misspeak on the part of a parent or a friend, or an older sibling who accidently (or purposely) spills the beans on the truth about Santa, "Is Santa real?" is a query that anyone's house who Santa does visit will have to answer eventually.
It's natural for your child to have questions about Santa, especially as they reach the older preschool years. Not only is their sense of reality and make-believe becoming more acute, but they are coming into contact with more and more children, some who do know the "truth" (and some who think they know). But just because your child is asking lots of questions, it doesn't necessarily means she really understands what is going on. Tried-and-true answers usually work well here -- "No, that isn't the real Santa at the mall and the grocery store, he has helper elves who meet with all the boys and girls for him while he's busy at the North Pole." "Well, you are right, he might have trouble fitting down our chimney. But if he doesn't think it will work, he'll just use our door."
And certainly, if you've decided that you want to keep your little one believing for just a little longer, you are lucky enough that there are millions of people in this world, not to mention an entire industry at your fingertips to support your cause. There are many organizations, including the good folks at North Pole, Alaska who respond to notes written to Santa with a "North Pole" postmarked letter. And one of my favorite Christmas Eve activities is to follow Santa on the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) website, as he makes his journey around the world. These two groups alone can make a believer out of anyone.
You can also turn the tables. If your little one reports that Julie's sister says that Santa isn't real, ask her what she thinks about it. If a child wants to believe, their answer to this question will be reflected here. You could say something like, "Well if Julie's sister doesn't believe, that's up to her. But if you believe, you shouldn't worry about what other people tell you."
If the questions don't stop and you feel like your child many already know the real answer, then as much as it saddens you, it might be time to tell her the truth. Use gentle words and be honest. Explain that although Santa Claus isn't a real person, the idea, love and generosity behind him is very real, and that's what makes Christmas so special. And reassure her that Christmas will still be the wonderful celebration -- complete with decorations, a tree, presents and festivities -- that she's always experienced. If there are younger children in the family -- siblings or cousins -- ask your child to not tell them the truth just yet and see if she's interested in helping make the day special for her relatives.