Confession: I never thought too much of Santa as a kid.

When my sister and I were very young, Dad would take us for a long enough winter sled walk on Christmas eve, as soon as it got dark out. My sister and I sat all bundled up in blankets on the wooden sled and Dad pulled us, through the snow, while telling us stories from his own childhood. I remember the snow creaking, the stars sparkling ever so bright up above, and my dad’s voice, like another warm blanket wrapped around us girls.

I loved seeing our neighbours’ homes all lit up, and I knew that each of them had tantalizing smells wafting from their kitchens. Ours was no exception. Mom made sure of that.

But there was one thing that also kept happening. We’d return from our sled ride and what do you know, we’d find a most beautiful Christmas tree in the foyer, and gifts underneath. Oh, and, most mysterious of all, snowy footprints all over, from …you know, Santa walking in to drop off the tree and gifts and then leaving, literally minutes before we got there. Every single time.

So, I never got to see him and that was fine because when I was six or so, my mom’s workplace organized a Christmas party with a real (‘real’) Santa that would greet each kid and give them a small gift. I was not impressed with what I saw. Whatever image of Santa I had created for myself did not match the version I met that day.

Many years later, when my boys were little, I thought I’d recreate some magic for them. The tree and presents showing up on Christmas Eve always had the eye-popping, mouth-opening effect on them.

Though we never did the typical ‘photo at the mall with Santa’, we got to meet a couple of ‘real’ Santas along the way. The first we met is the one I liked the most and the boys did too. We found him in a little bookstore/toy store on Granville Island in Vancouver. A friend mentioned him but given my childhood impression of ‘real’ Santa, I was ready to pass. Alas, love conquers everything, reluctance to Santa included, so off we went.

And it was so good, I have a nice warm feeling every time I think about it. That small room we found him in had glass walls, and he was sitting in an old wooden chair, surrounded by a few little ones sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor. No massive crowds, just those few kids listening to Santa reading stories. The boys, seven and three at the time, slipped right in, sat down and listened. I did too.

It was warm and cozy, and he was reading in a soft, comforting voice, sentences interspersed with a few chuckles. As far as make-believe goes… I was all in. We took our time.

Before we left, I asked if I could take a photo of him with the boys. I am glad I did, because though I did not know it at the time, I realized he was as close as can be to the Santa I was picturing in my head as a little kid: A mix of grandparents and parents, a presence like a warm embrace around us kids, and the comfort of a home filled with sweet smells and that little bit of Christmas mystery that brought out the giggles.

For a couple of more years after that, the magical cloud of Santa hung in the air and the boys went along with it.

Then, as all good things come to an end, so did this belief. Three years after the Granville Island Santa encounter, I had a bewildered little boy step into the kitchen with a stark realization plastered all over his face: the Tooth Fairy does not exist, he declared. His explanation: kids get different monetary amounts for lost teeth, which is not what a real and fair fairy would do. Okay, I relented without argument. He left the kitchen and went to play. It was mid-December and we had just put together a few Christmas gifts for a charity that was distributing to less fortunate families.

A few minutes later, he stormed into the kitchen, his brother hot on his trail, knowing that whatever came next was worth witnessing. It was.

‘If Santa was real, he would first give to children who do not have a lot, but it’s kids who have everything already that get the most presents.’

So that was that. Santa was exposed along with the Tooth Fairy.

The boys did, as kids do. Shrugged and went back to play. I stood bewildered and wondered if this took away any of the magic. It did not. Many years later (the boys are now 20 and 16), I know the same is true.

However, the Granville Island Santa remains to this day a most precious memory, so the photo goes up every year.

It’s a memory that carries not just the facts of that day, but the feeling I had as a child when my grandpa and grandma were still around, and my dad would take us for Christmas eve starry-and-snowy sled rides, all wrapped in blankets and stories, and my mom was waiting at home, warm heart, and wide arms ready for us red-cheeked girls.

Somehow, that Santa knew what mattered most. Stories and warmth. And a chuckle every now and then, to draw out little kid giggles. That’s the stuff Christmas garlands are made of, you know…

Have a merry magical Christmas!