The store-sponsored Santa Claus - "one of Santa's helpers," my younger daughter Ella Beth proclaimed - approached our two girls at a local antique store Monday afternoon.
"What's wrong with your ear?" he asked Julia Caroline.
"I don't know," she replied, somewhat perplexed.
"Mind if I look?" he asked.
"No," she answered somewhat nervously.
Reaching behind her ear, he pulled out a silver dollar-sized coin, which had "Nice" engraved on it.
"I guess that means you've been nice this year," he said. Then he repeated the carnival trick with Ella Beth, who cautiously asked on the drive home, "Do you think I've been more nice than naughty this year, Daddy?"
"Maybe a little bit," I replied with a chuckle.
"Oh, Daddy," she sighed.
That cute moment with Santa Claus is the kind of experience we all wish for our children this time of year. A moment to bring happiness and hope. A moment to fortify the wonder and mystique of the jolly ol' soul in the bright red suit.
It thankfully mirrors my own childhood, one blessed by two parents able to provide my sister and me a carefree, happy youth, each year seeming to peak at Christmas.
It's why I still grow misty-eyed during "Silent Night" and can still recite at least half the lines to "White Christmas," "A Christmas Story" and "Christmas Vacation." I even like egg nog.
But for more families than we'd like to admit, Christmas doesn't come down to who's been naughty or nice as much as who's forgotten and who's fortunate.
One of the most enlightening moments of my 29 years at the Times Free Press came in the bleak midwinter of 1987 as I sought to write a lighthearted column about what that year's University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball Mocs wanted for Christmas.
The third player I asked said, "I don't have Christmas this year. This is my little sister's year to have Christmas. My mother doesn't have enough money to give us both a decent Christmas every year, so we rotate. This year's her turn."
And you wondered whether Grinches really roam the earth.
Our daughters both expected Santa to visit them as Christmas Eve gave way to this morning, and he probably did. They even thought of something to do with their "Nice" coins.
"I think we should make a wish on them, put them in the bottom of our stockings and hope that Santa finds them and grants our wishes," Julia Caroline said.
"I'm wishing for a million dollars," her sister said with wisdom wise beyond her years.
Not me. I'm wishing that every kid everywhere has a merry little Christmas every year. And that 2013 is noticeably better than 2012, especially for the shattered hearts of Newtown, Conn.