Santa didn’t come, or so she thought.

My 6-year-old was heartbroken. Defeated. Any word you can think of to describe seeing a fully decorated tree on Christmas morning naked of presents.

Was she on the naughty list? What … what had happened?

As my eyes opened for the morning, hers were glued to the floor.

“He didn’t come,” Grace told me at about 7 a.m. Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. “Santa didn’t come.”

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About seven hours earlier, we were arriving home from a Christmas Eve dinner when a brilliant thought crossed our older daughter’s mind: Daddy should stay up to try and see Santa.

It was Christmas Eve, so I couldn’t turn down the little mastermind’s excitement. We set out St. Nick’s cookies and carrots (for Santa’s reindeer, of course), and my four-member family went to bed.

Well, except me. I stayed up and tried to catch the man himself.

I promised Grace I would make a bed on the upstairs living room couch, but I couldn’t promise her how late I’d be able to keep my eyes alert. I stayed up another hour, just in case Grace got up to check on me, until dozing off at about 1:30 a.m. I woke up an hour later and finally climbed into my own bed. Five-ish hours of sleep and my next sight was a sad girl, clenching her puppy-dog stuffed animal, knowing there was no present under the tree for her. Tears were building.

“He didn’t come?” I asked her. “Grace, I tried to stay up late, kiddo. Maybe that’s why. I’m sorry.”

It’s easy to remember the joyous childhood memories when you get to run into your parents’ bedroom shouting that Santa snuck into your house overnight. There’s magic in that feeling, both when you’re a kid and remembering it as an adult.

Prior to Christmas 2019, Grace had always woken Christmas morning at her grandma and grandpa’s house in central Minnesota — where Santa certainly knew she was staying with her parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Last year, Santa knew that she was back in Mitchell, staying in her own bed on Christmas Eve. There was no confusion on our family’s location in 2020 because a worldwide sickness kept us in South Dakota.

“Grace, did any of the cookies get eaten?” her mom asked from the other side of the bed.

As we all got up, we walked by the Christmas tree that indeed looked like the Grinch had visited overnight. But over on the counter, somewhat suspiciously, there were bites out of the cookies on the tray and all of the carrots were gone.

There was still plenty of sleep in my head, but Grace was quick to solve the dilemma.

“There’s a tree downstairs. Let’s go,” she said.

I glanced over at my wife and smirked as we were mentally confirming our daughter’s impressive critical thinking skills. You see, it had only been about a week earlier she was asking how in tarnation Santa can get all over the world in one night. “Why?” and “How?” are regular sentence starters from Grace. She wants to learn, and I love it.

Her little feet drummed down the steps and the basement tree came into focus.

“He came! He came!” she shouted as we paraded behind her.

Two bags, one labeled “Grace” and another labeled “Zoey,” were under the tree. Her sister was still asleep upstairs, but Grace didn’t need her help to solve the mystery.

Her head dove into the bag, and with the toys that came out, so did her two-front teeth toothless smile.

“Guess you can’t stay up and catch Santa,” I told her. “It’s like the song says, ‘He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.’”

“But how?”

Because there’s a whole lot of magic that comes on Christmas. There really is.