With Santa invading every shopping mall and street corner this time of year, parents face the question "To tell or not to tell?"

Should new parents start the elaborate game of make-believe? Is a kid ever too old to believe? Will they be heartbroken if they learn the truth?

If their kids still believe in Santa, many parents plan on preserving the story for as long as possible.

"My kid is seven, and she totally believes," said Rick Browne. "She loves Christmas."

He hasn't decided when or how to tell her, but with all the varied explanations about Santa in movies and friends who don't believe in Santa Claus, he may not have to tell her at all.

"The reality is, she's going to figure it out," he said.

For parents with more than one child, it's harder to keep the air of mystery.

Mark Goodwin, who has three boys, aged 10, eight and six, said his oldest is on to Santa, but "he's willing to go along with it" for his younger siblings.

Even if his son doesn't spill the beans, Goodwin doesn't plan to be the one to spoil his sons' belief.

"You never tell them," he said. "They tell you. The kids are in school all day long, eventually one of their evil friends is going to let them know."

Santa the spirit

Other families emphasize the meaning behind Santa Claus rather than belief in the red-suited man delivering gifts.

"I never exactly said Santa doesn't exist," said Joan G'acha, who has two children, aged three and six. But one year when the presents from Santa were mysteriously delivered to a house where they didn't live, her six-year-old daughter figured it out. The discovery didn't spoil her enjoyment of Christmas, however.

"She said to me, 'Mom, Santa Claus, he's the spirit of Christmas,'" G'acha said.

Greg Valentin, a teacher's aid at Helman Elementary School, took a similar approach, teaching his children who are now in their 20s that Santa represented the spirit of giving.

But at school, he is more tight-lipped.

"We leave that for the parents," he said.

Is it lying?

The debate still continues in some circles whether it is a good idea to mislead your children.

"I don't buy this whole, 'Your kids will feel you betrayed them,'" said Sydnee Dreyer, whose two children both believe in Santa. "You let them participate in something fun."

Even when her seven-year-old son became suspect last year, Dreyer still encouraged him to believe. But others say that is setting kids up for broken trust.

Adam Pearson, a Sunday school teacher at Simple Faith Fellowship, said he teaches children the whole truth about Santa Claus, including the story of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts on the doorsteps of single mothers and young families.

"I've really made some people mad just by saying he's not real," he said. "I tell the kids he was a real guy. He loved the Lord. I tell where the tradition comes from, and I kind of leave it at that."

Although many Christians do teach their children to believe that Santa is responsible for the gifts in their stockings, Pearson said that can be dangerous.

"I totally didn't agree that teaching your kids that Santa is real because right alongside they're teaching their kids that Jesus is real," he said. "A lot of times they ask, "What else are you lying to me about? You tell me Jesus is real, but I can't see him.' I would hate to build your kids up with a tradition of lies. Why not just tell them the truth, who he was?"

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .