What is real? I taught my children when they were young that Santa Claus was real. At their age, I saw nothing inherently wrong with it. My parents taught me Santa Claus was real and went to great lengths to keep me convinced into my teens. When my children were a bit older, I had a crisis of conscience in which I became convinced that by telling my children Santa was real I was lying to them. How could I expect them to be honest and truthful with me when I was lying to them. And I most certainly did have such an expectation for them.
The Santa-is-a-lie phase of my life lasted for a few years, then I changed my mind again. At that point, I tried again to convince them he was real, but I meant something different by it and they knew it. What did I mean though?
Santa is real in the same way Aslan is real; Aslan is real in two ways. First, Aslan is real in that he is analogous to (a type of) or even allegorical to the real, historical, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is real, He rules and reigns, He loves and forgives, He blesses and gives. Aslan does all of those things through story, but he also embodies the actions of the real Jesus and becomes a type for us to imitate as we seek to mature in our imitation of Christ Himself.
Second, Aslan is real in that he actually does things to us and changes us. Certainly, much of this comes through the stories themselves. As a reader of The Chronicles of Narnia, I encounter Aslan and he makes me want to be a better person. I become (or strive to become) more caring and loving, firm and assertive, kind and compassionate like the Aslan I encounter in the stories. My actual person changes because of these encounters.
Santa is real in the same two ways. First, he is the character that continues in story today to typify the historical Saint Nicholas, the gift-giving, heretic-slapping saint of the third and fourth centuries. Second, he embodies characteristics and traits that affect and change who we are or who we will become. My generosity is spurred by the stories of the generosity of the modern Santa Claus and the historical Saint Nicholas. My behavior is tempered by the desire to be nice and not naughty because of these same stories.
Doesn’t something qualify as “real” precisely because of its ability to have a real impact on us as human beings? If I’ve hurt someone and they convince me that they have forgiven me, aren’t I changed by the belief that I’ve been forgiven? Won’t I treat that person differently because I’ve believed they’ve forgiven me? But what if they have not in fact forgiven me? The forgiveness is not “real” in that they have not actually forgiven me, but isn’t it “real” in that I have believed it to be genuine and have altered my own behavior as a result of that belief?
In that sense, I can answer and persuade my children that Santa Claus is real. He is someone who will inform their identity and change them, hopefully for the better–just as the stories of the historic Saint Nicholas will, the life of their Lord Jesus Christ will, and the stories of the favorite lion, Aslan, will.