How you deal with the big question is a personal choice and depends on your individual children on what approach you feel best. It doesn’t matter what method you choose for your own child for me the most important thing is to respect the way other people have chosen to handle the question. Every family has different traditions and every family does Christmas differently.
There are some lovely ways to tell older children the truth in a gentle way. A popular way to break the news is to invite the child to become part of the Christmas magic and help create elf on the shelf antics for younger siblings, help choose and wrap the Christmas presents and be part of the big secret.
In our family the elves and Father Christmas are a huge deal. Growing up we were never told “the truth” we got to an age where we just knew but my mother would always react with mock horror if we ever suggested otherwise. Even now as adults if we ask where a certain stocking present was bought my Mum will reply “I don’t know Father Christmas brought that one”.
We decided to take the same approach, we have two children with Autism so breaking the news to our eldest would also mean breaking the news to his younger siblings and cousins as he cannot understand keeping the secret and would tell them which is unfair on them. I didn’t want to be put in the position of being confronted by a younger child saying the eldest had said I told him it wasn’t real as that would be difficult for everyone.
We paved the way for him no longer believing as he approached the end of primary school by telling the children that unfortunately as we get older and approach our teenage years some people lose the ability to see and feel magic so they no longer believe. That way they are free to stop believing when they are ready and it doesn’t spoil the magic for the younger ones. I always tell them that I am lucky and never lost the ability to see magic so I still believe but they have to make up their own mind. If they no longer believe they are to respect those of us that still do. By not categorically confirming their suspicions they have the glimmer of doubt for that little bit longer and it isn’t as easy to spoil the magic for others, if they say I don’t believe anymore it is less of a problem then them saying “Mum told me it is just her and Dad doing it all”.
Another point to consider before you answer the big question is a lot of children get to an age where they have pretty much worked it out for themselves but don’t want it to end. A lot of the time when they ask the first time they are wanting you to dismiss their suspicions for a little longer at least. I would be very certain that your child does actually want to know and I would always wait until they ask rather than proactively telling them when we think it is time.
As they get older I discourage them from discussing it at school and explain everyone has different beliefs, I did find though that as they got older they naturally stop talking about Father Christmas at school anyway.
With the elf on the shelf I plan to retire them in a similar way that gently ends the antics without giving concrete proof it never was true magic. I did once see online a beautiful letter saying something along the lines of “now you are older we will retire from the antics, we will still come out each year as part of your Christmas decorations and traditions but we will no longer be doing antics until maybe you have children of your own”. I am still trying to find the original letter to use when the time comes as it was worded much more eloquently and is the perfect way for our family to transition to new traditions.