Christmas Eve has its share of wonderful traditions: Playing Christmas music, eating Christmas Eve dinner, putting out Christmas cookies for Santa and staying up all night to try to get a glimpse of him as he puts the presents under the tree. But eventually, kids naturally wonder how Santa visits so many houses in one night (easy — he's magic), how he eats so many cookies without being sick (practice) and, sadly, whether he exists at all. Here's what to tell kids about Santa when those questions inevitably arise.

Is Santa real? Of course he is.

Let's begin with something we all know is true: Santa Claus is real. New York Sun's newspaper reported it in 1897 in response to an inquiring letter form an 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon. "Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus," newsman Francis Pharcellus Church wrote. "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS."

Francis Pharcellus Church must've done his research: There are historical records about St. Nicholas going all the way back to the 3rd Century. According to those documents, he was probably born around 280 A.D. somewhere in modern-day Turkey. His kind acts made him the patron saint of children.

And anyone who's seen Miracle on 34th Street understands the following: The fact that the postal system delivers letters to the North Pole proves that the federal government recognizes a Santa Claus. (And that's proof that can hold up in court!)

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Now that that's all taken care of, it's natural for kids to eventually express some hesitation about Santa's magic. When those times arise, it can be hard to figure out how to respond to kids when the doubts start to creep in. Here's what to look out for, and what to tell kids about Santa when they start to probe for answers.

Keep an eye out for questions, and how they're asked.

Questioning Santa Claus is a natural part of getting older. What parents can control, though, is how they respond to them. Are kids just probing for more information about Santa, or is something else at work?

Once you notice the questions coming more often, it might be time to figure out how to wind things down. "Sometimes, it’s less about when your child is ready and more about when you are ready," says MegAnne Ford, a parenting coach and owner/CEO of Be Kind Coaching. "We as adults started the story, and it's our job as adults to finish the story."

While one or two queries might not signal the end, it could be time to start preparing. "As soon as your child starts questioning, it's time to start the planning process," Ford says. "Think of this as an invitation to decide how your family will view the story of Santa, in your unique way."

You don't have to come out with it all right away. "When a child starts asking if Santa Claus is real, most parents I know — myself included — either say 'of course,' or redirect the question to not quite answer it," says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., who runs The Art and Science of Mom. "When a child is satisfied with this, even if they start to have doubts, they may not be ready to stop believing."

But, eventually, there may be a shift in the way they ask the question. "When a child says something along the lines of, 'Santa isn't real, is he?' it can be useful to reflect the question back to them to figure out why they think so," Dr. Edlynn says. When they're older and can think more critically, they'll tell you Santa isn't real, and especially when their peers are talking about Santa not being real. These are good indicators they're ready to hear the truth."

As for when the shift starts to happen, it's different depending on the child, but expect the questioning to get serious somewhere between the ages of 7 and 10. In 2019, House Method surveyed more than 4,500 families across the United States, and found the overall average age for no longer believing in Santa Claus is 8.4 years old. (But it varies by state: Kids in Mississippi generally believe until they're 10, while kids in Oregon stop believing at 7.)

Respond to your child's emotions.

Children react differently to hearing the news about Santa. "My 9-year-old daughter seemed proud to have matured into this grown-up secret she could keep from her younger siblings!" Dr. Edlynn says. Others might feel embarrassed that they believed for so long, or are sad to lose the version of the Santa they knew.

Don't try to direct your kids to react a certain way. "Your role as a parent is not to govern your child’s emotions, whether positive or negative," Ford says. "It's your role to create a safe, loving and validating environment. Make sure that the focus is on honesty, connection and compassion, and that'll ensure the conversation ends in everyone’s favor."

He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.

You can also focus on ways to keep the good feelings associated with Santa going. "It's fun to talk to kids about ways we can keep up the Santa spirit during the holidays even if we are too old to believe in the red-suited man handing out gifts all night," Dr. Edlynn says. "Talking about the spirit of Santa — generosity, kindness, happiness — can help keep the magic alive, no matter our age."

Evolve to the next step.

You can use this as an opportunity to start a new kind of tradition with your family. They may feel pride in finally being old enough to make Christmas Eve dinner with the family chef, for example, showing them that they gain Christmas magic as they age instead of just losing it.

One anonymous parent, whose idea went viral through an admiring Facebook post, came up with a brilliant idea that takes that last point to the extreme: Tell children that, while they don't receive presents from Santa, they're now old enough to become Santa. She explains:

When they are 6 or 7, whenever you see that dawning suspicion that Santa may not be a material being, that means the child is ready. I take them out "for coffee" at the local wherever. We get a booth, order our drinks, and the following pronouncement is made: “You sure have grown an awful lot this year. Not only are you taller, but I can see that your heart has grown, too. [Point out 2–3 examples of empathetic behavior, consideration of people's feelings, good deeds etc, the kid has done in the past year]. In fact, your heart has grown so much that I think you are ready to become a Santa Claus. You probably have noticed that most of the Santas you see are people dressed up like him. Some of your friends might have even told you that there is no Santa. A lot of children think that, because they aren't ready to BE a Santa yet, but YOU ARE ... We then have the child choose someone they know — a neighbor, usually. The child's mission is to secretly, deviously, find out something that the person needs, and then provide it, wrap it, deliver it — and never reveal to the target where it came from. Being a Santa isn't about getting credit, you see. It's unselfish giving.

While its exact origins are unclear, the little essay has circulated online forums for years, and before popping up in that viral Facebook post (where you can read more details about the mom's technique for revealing the Santa truth):

Charity Hutchinson, the admirer who shared the story, told the Huffington Post that she doesn't know where it came from, but "I wish I could say I had thought of it myself ― it's pretty brilliant!" Since she has two sons, she wants to her children enjoy Santa at first but eventually learn that the holiday involves more than just presents.

"Christmas is about helping others, giving selflessly and being thankful for what you do have and not what you don't," she said. "Reading this parent's story made me feel like I could, even as a Christian, encourage my children to believe in him so that one day they could become a Santa and give to others." While that day may come faster than most parents like, it can be the beginning of a new holiday tradition for years to come.