There were whisperings on his young nephew's school bus that Santa wasn't real, said Dave Albanese of New Brighton. The first-grader set his classmates straight.
"Yes, he is, because he goes to my uncle's house for breakfast," Mr. Albanese said his nephew told them.
It's true. For 17 years, Santa -- and usually Mrs. Claus, too -- has been a breakfast guest on one day in December at the Beaver County home of Dave and Barbara Albanese and their three children.
The tradition has withstood even the family's move in 2005 to Doha, Qatar, a 20-hour plane journey away, where Mr. Albanese is director of human resources for Northwestern University. Mr. Albanese returns home each fall to decorate his house for Christmas.
On Tuesday night, the family returned to the Pittsburgh area from Qatar, and on Sunday, more than 60 children and adults will join two special guests from the North Pole for the 18th consecutive Albanese family breakfast with Santa.
The breakfast tradition began shortly after Mr. Albanese, 53, became a father more than two decades ago. He started searching for a place that offered breakfast with Santa, an annual tradition at Gimbels department store and a source of fond memories during his own childhood.
The formula for a breakfast with Santa is simple: Parents bring their children to a place where they eat breakfast and tell Santa what presents they want for Christmas. But when his oldest child Lorenzo, now a 20-year-old Slippery Rock University student, was a toddler, his father couldn't find a good place to bring him.
"I thought, we'll just have our own," he said.
It started small, with only Lorenzo and a few other cousins and friends seated around the a table, so awestruck by their breakfast companion they nearly forgot to eat. Mr. Albanese, who said the breakfast "was like my Christmas gift to me," decided to make it a tradition.
He tried two different Santas before settling on a professional Mr. and Mrs. Claus couple from New Brighton, partly for continuity's sake. Mr. Albanese invites family and friends, making a spreadsheet where he marks which children are believers and which are not.
"One of the things I make sure the parents all know, is that when they come here, we all believe in Santa," he said. Lorenzo Albanese joked that his father acts as "head elf."
Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive just after the children have eaten. They talk about how Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus and they lead Christmas carols. Then, with Mr. Albanese directing, each child gets a chance to sit on Santa's lap and make a last-minute Christmas wish.
Every child receives a gift card and every family receives a special Christmas ornament inscribed with the year and the letters BWS -- for Breakfast with Santa.
For years, the three Albanese children thought their father had some sort of special connection to the North Pole, some string he could pull to get Santa to their house for a meal before Christmas, said Giovanna Albanese, 17.
"I thought he was really cool," said Luciano Albanese, who just turned 12 Friday. "The man."
This year's Christmas breakfast is a little sad, Mrs. Albanese said, because it is the first year all three of her children know the truth about Santa. But they still believe in the spirit of Santa, Giovanna said.
Even as his children grow older, Mr. Albanese said he plans to keep the tradition intact.
But one year in the future, he plans to cast a new Santa: himself.neigh_west - holidays
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.