From the Tooth Fairy slipping quarters under pillows to the Easter Bunny hiding colorful eggs, imaginary characters are a beloved part of childhood. Believing in the Santa Claus story—a symbol of generosity and goodness during the holidays—is a healthy way your child can explore her imagination, learn the joy of giving and, let’s face it, be on her best behavior for old Saint Nick.

Even though the day will come when your child stops believing, she’ll most likely appreciate your efforts to make the story feel real—and play along for younger siblings! Studies by professor Serge Larivée of Université de Montréal and Carole Sénéchal from the University of Ottawa reveal that 22 to 39 percent of 7- to 13-year-olds questioned felt disappointed when they learned the truth about Father Christmas, but only 2 to 6 percent felt betrayed. "When they learn the truth, children accept the rules of the game and even go along with their parents in having younger children believe in Santa," says Larivée.

Cookie Crumb Trail. Bake cookies with your child to leave out for Saint Nick. Once she’s asleep, break one cookie into crumbs, and then sprinkle them around the tree and stockings. Then, indulge in the rest! This small step will add a touch of authenticity to your Christmas morning, and make your kid feel proud that “Santa” enjoyed her home-baked treats.

Reindeer Tracks. Mix-up a batch of granola, or a similar reindeer snack, with your little sous chef, then sprinkle it outside for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, reminding her that Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen need to keep their energy up to deliver all of those gifts. Don’t worry about cleaning up—wild animals will do that for you, creating an assortment of tracks from the “reindeer” to amaze your child on Christmas morning.

Santa’s Special Key. If you live in fireplace-free home, make and hide a “Santa Key” outside so Father Christmas can still make his way inside without a chimney. Create a duplicate or simply hunt down an old key, and then have your child jazz it up with glitter, sequins, paint, stickers, and pom-poms. This fun craft will calm any worries about Santa being able to get in, fill stockings and fly on to the next house.

Under Wraps. Wrap gifts from old Saint Nick in a special paper that’s visually different from all of the other presents under the tree. Your kid will be too busy ripping through the paper to pay attention to gift tags. By using a strikingly different paper for gifts from the North Pole, you’ll create a nice contrast between gifts from you and loot from Santa. Remember to wrap any stocking gifts in Santa’s paper as well.

Avoid Temptation. Even the kid at the top of Santa’s “Nice” list can’t resist snooping for—and peeking at—gifts hidden around the house. Nothing shatters the illusion of Santa quicker than when little eyes spot the bike from the jolly old man himself stashed in your garage—two weeks before it should appear under the tree. Hide presents out of reach, or utilize the closets, attics and nooks in the homes of neighbors or family members to ensure your kid is surprised come Christmas morning.

Meet and Greet. If you decide to have your little one’s picture taken with Mr. Claus, spend a bit of time researching your options. Create a list of qualities your Santa should have—such as a cheery disposition, a real white beard, and elves—then find the perfect fit at a local Santa photo op. Seeing Santa in the flesh will help your kid believe—but only if he’s convincing. A grumpy, overworked Saint Nick may dash young dreams about the magical man. Authenticity is key.

Letter to Saint Nick. Encourage your kid to pen a wish list to Santa, and then discretely keep a copy by scanning it into your computer, or snapping a quick photo. The letter will make a great keepsake for when she’s older, and a great Facebook post for you. You can drop the letter in the mailbox, or send it up the chimney in the whoosh of hot air from a roaring fire for a whimsical route to the North Pole.

As your child gets a bit older, she’ll start questioning Santa’s existence. When it’s time to come clean, sit her down and explain that it’s time she’s let in on the “big kid” secret. Reveal your reasons for keeping the illusion of Father Christmas and his antlered friends alive, focusing on how the Santa story helps make the holidays a magical time for kids. Telling her that she’s old enough to be in on the secret will soften the blow—and once she’s done pouting, there’s a good chance she’ll be excited to play along for younger siblings or neighbors.

Tears may spill, but she’ll realize that your efforts to make Santa real added undeniable joy to childhood Christmases—and in the end, appreciate the steps you took to hold on to the magic and mystery of Santa Claus.