My son Ben, who will soon be 6, had another Santa Claus question for me the other day. I was driving him to school. He must have been looking at the chimneys at the houses on our street.

`Poppy,' he said, `how can Santa fit down those little holes?'

I told him I did not know. I mumbled that I never actually saw Santa go down a chimney, so he must have a special way of doing it. I smiled at my own cleverness.

`Oh,' Ben said, and I could tell from the way he responded that this was not a satisfactory answer. It made no geometric sense to him.

A few days earlier, Ben had asked me how exactly big Santa's bag of toys was. I said something like, `All I know is that it is pretty big,' but that was not specific enough for him, either. He immediately asked if Santa's bag was as big as the coffee shop we were sitting in. I told him I did not know. A day or two later, as we sat in a restaurant, he wondered if Santa's bag would fill that room. This was something had Ben absolutely had to quantify.

`All I know is that Santa has a lot of toys to take to everybody,' I said.

So, technically, I did not lie. But the perpetuation of the Santa myth is, frankly, bothering me quite a bit the older Ben gets.

Many Christian parents would like their children to believe the story of Santa Claus. From all accounts, he sounds like a pretty nice guy. But children are inquisitive. I long ago discovered that if one of my answers about any topic does not make sense, Ben will ask a follow-up question, or two or three. When it comes to my Santa answers, Ben often gives me a puzzled look, as if the facts don't quite add up. Reindeer, specifically, seem to be a problem. He can't quite picture those lumbering reindeer standing on a sloping roof without tumbling off, and neither can I.

Actually, I feel uncomfortable about the whole thing. To me, this is not a cute little white lie, and I don't want to condone fibbing to my children. And yet, at the same time, I don't know what else to do.

Sometimes, when Ben is misbehaving, I pretend to call Santa's answering machine to let Santa know. That worked for a while, but it is as if Ben is catching on that I might not actually be talking to Santa's answering machine. Then I feel guilty.

So why can't I be straightforward with him now? Perhaps it is because I can't reconcile the value of Santa Claus in our world.

The ancient stories of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas, men who spread the joy of the season with small but meaningful gifts, are wonderful lessons for a child. I can't imagine a moment of purer parental delight when Ben makes a piece of artwork and presents it to a relative because he genuinely enjoys giving away something he values.

And yet, sadly, Santa Claus has come to represent greed. My son has a list of about 10 toys that he would like Santa to bring. We are careful with how many toys we give him, and we have told him not to expect everything on it. On past Christmas mornings, though, Ben was disappointed if he did not get everything that he asked for. I don't think he is unusual. Children learn from watching TV and talking to other kids that Christmas can be, should be, a bonanza of presents.

I have considered simply leveling with him about Santa. But most of his friends, I assume, believe in Santa, too, and I don't want him to be the person who spoils it for his buddies. And I don't know if I want him to spoil it for his brother, who is not yet 3. Right now, I say to myself: Ben will find out soon enough. But I don't know if that is right, either.

I can remember the moment I learned the Real Story about Santa. I was 6 1-2 and was in first grade. We were in the school cafeteria, and one of my friends, who happened to have an older brother, said to me, in kind of a sing-song taunt, ``You don't still believe in Santa Claus, do you?'' I remember meekly replying, ``No,'' then feeling utterly crestfallen. I could not pinpoint it then, but it was as if I knew a chapter of my life was over.

My wife found out in a different way. As she tells the story, she was 9, and she steadfastly clung to her belief because she was convinced she ``saw'' Santa scampering around her house one Christmas Eve. (It was, she says now, probably her early-rising grandmother.) Finally, her parents had to tell her, because her younger sister had started to figure the Santa thing out.

She does not want to take away the idea of Santa Claus from Ben, and I don't, either. And yet I feel obligated to fill in the holes for him. For example, he has already asked how babies are made, and my wife and I have been delicate and straightforward with him on that topic.

Likewise with our faith. Although he can't see God, Ben can grasp the general concept of spirituality, and he knows that the celebration of Christ's birth is paramount at Christmas, not Santa's annual blowout of presents. We have a crèche in our living room, and Ben treats it with reverence, marking a spot, ``BJ,'' for the Baby Jesus, and scolding Danny, his little brother, if one of the pieces is as much as touched.

What I hope for, I guess, is that some day Ben will look at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and say, ``Poppy, I think I figured it out about Santa.'' But I don't want to have someone else crush his spirit in the meantime, and I don't want to perpetuate the story of Santa Claus forever. I think about the important lessons he could be learning between now and then.

Just yesterday, we passed a basket with unwrapped toys to be forwarded to poor children. Ben picked up one of the toys and said, as if Santa could bring it to him, ``Oh, I want this.'' I told him the toys were for children of families that could not afford them.

I waited for Ben to ask the question: ``Why can't Santa bring toys to their house, too?'' But it never came. Such a question would have been a good chance to talk about the blessings of Christmas. Such a question will come some day. Until then I will probably find myself mumbling in response to each Santa question, wondering to myself whether just telling my son the truth would be far less complicated.

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