Italian bishop gives children tough news: there is no Santa Claus

ROME – Everything that separated the stunned Sicilian schoolchildren from meeting Old Saint Nick – arriving on horseback with his long white beard, crimson robe and sack full of gifts – was a Christmas message from the Bishop of Noto.

“Santa Claus”, thundered Bishop Antonio Staglianò, “is an imaginary character”.

The children’s jaws dropped and the holiday wool fell from their eyes as, for long minutes in the Basilica of Santissimo Salvatore, the bishop continued to glue him to Santa Claus, who he said had no interest in cash strapped families.

“The red color of his coat was chosen by Coca-Cola for advertising purposes,” said the bishop. Big soda, he added, “uses the image to present itself as an emblem of healthy values.”

The bishop’s streak against Babbo Natale, as Father Christmas is called here, was only the latest installment in what has become a new Italian holiday tradition. Almost every year, Roman Catholic clerics insist that in order for Italians to keep Christ on Christmas, Santa Claus must be kept away.

In 2019, a priest in the northern town of Magliano Alpi told children that there was no man dressed in red who “magically” delivered gifts. In 2018, in the Sardinian town of Quartu Sant’Elena, another priest shed tears as he revealed that Santa Claus was in fact none other than their moms and dads.

This year’s episode on December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, was particularly cheeky, said Giuliana Scarnato, one of the teachers accompanying the children, none over 9, during a school trip to the church of Noto.

Credit…Tommaso Di Girolamo / AGF, via Getty Images

She said the bishop “could have left Santa Claus out of this”, but insisted on calling Santa “fantastic, that he never existed”. She said when one of the children protested, telling the bishop that his parents had assured him that Santa Claus was real, the cleric replied that the child should tell his parents “you are telling lies” .

In an interview, Bishop Staglianò said he remembered being more tactful and insisted that he simply explained that the roots of Santa Claus – which he described as a harmful product of the industrial complex, soft drinks and consumption – resided in the historical figure of St. Nicholas, a charitable 4th century bishop of Myra, in present-day Turkey, who, according to tradition, looked after the poor.

He had strong feelings about it.

“Is Santa Claus everyone’s father, or just some?” He said, digging holes in Santa’s briefcase. “During confinement, Santa Claus did not visit the families he was attending. Why? It is certainly not for fear of the coronavirus. “

The bishop warmly recalled the days when Italian children sent their wish lists to Baby Jesus, “Not Santa Claus and reindeer and let’s go to the movies and go bowling and all that American junk.”

This year the nationalists have opened a new front in Italy’s struggle over the form of Christmas. Desperate for a popular appeal problem in a time of political stability, they resumed the claim of the American right to oppose a war on Christmas.

For them, the main target was not Santa Claus but the European Union.

In November, a conservative Italian newspaper discovered that an office of the European Union commissioner had drafted guidelines for internal correspondence, calling for more inclusive, non-sexist and less vacation-specific language.

“Not everyone celebrates Christian holidays, and not all Christians celebrate them on the same dates,” read the document, which advised staff to avoid phrases such as “Christmas can be stressful”. Better, he suggested, would be “vacation periods can be stressful”.

The stress came immediately, with far-right leaders heading to town.

Matteo Salvini, the nationalist leader and former Deputy Prime Minister, posted on social media a photo of a beheaded statue of the Virgin Mary in a ditch.

Mr Salvini, who is not particularly religious but often presents himself as a defender of Christianity, wrote on Facebook: “The European Commission urges us not to celebrate Holy Christmas in order not to offend others, and some morons do those rude things.

Another right-wing nationalist politician, Giorgia Meloni, told conservative newspaper Libero that the EU’s guidelines were “shameful”.

“No one can be offended by a child who is born in a nursery,” she added.

Even Pope Francis – who has suggested that nationalist leaders are not Christians for their opposition to migrants – echoed them when it came to canceling Christmas.

Asked about the EU document earlier this month, Francis said: “It’s an anachronism,” and accused the bloc of following in the footsteps of totalitarians. “In history, many, many dictatorships have tried” to undermine the church, he said. “Think of Napoleon. From there, think of the Nazi dictatorship, the Communist dictatorship.

But Francis has so far not rallied to defend Santa Claus against his own bishop’s remarks, and the Vatican has not returned a request for comment.

Bishop Staglianò maintained that he was in full agreement with Francis.

“With all due respect,” he said, “Santa Claus only brings gifts to those with money,” whether the children are mean or nice.

The poor families and migrants he visits every Christmas, he said, “have never seen Santa Claus”. He therefore urged the children of the church to ask for more gifts from Santa Claus and, if he showed up, to explain to him that they could now give them to the poor children “since you never visit them. ! “

He said that none of the mothers in the church dared to contradict him and that some children, emboldened by his preaching, spoke with the power of revelation. “I always knew it, that my father was Santa Claus,” he said to the announcement of a child.

Breaking that Christmas “spell” was progress, the bishop said, recalling that as a child he wrote letters asking Santa for money and put them under his father’s plate. He would find an envelope with a few thousand old Italian lire under his pillow.

But he knew when he was four years old that it was his father, he said, and argued that the 7-year-olds on the benches also knew the score very well. The 62-year-old bishop said he hadn’t broken any illusions of dragee.

“If we only knew,” he said, referring to his generation, “imagine these kids with their smartphones.”

Tradition has it that Saint Nicholas was kind to children and gave gold coins to three poor sisters who would otherwise have turned to prostitution. Over the centuries he has become the patron saint of, among others, children, pawn shops and Russia. Even today, many Russians travel to the city of Bari in southern Italy, where its relics, stolen by sailors centuries ago, are kept in the Basilica of San Nicola.

The tradition of St. Nicholas eventually spread north, where the Dutch called it Sinterklaas, a variant of St. Nicholas. The Dutch settled in New Amsterdam, later in New York, where English speakers in the American colonies anglicized the saint’s name as Santa Claus.

Reindeer, sleigh, Christmas Eve deliveries, and fat belly were added in the 19th century, as was the red coat, which was Santa’s standard outfit long before Coca-Cola got involved.

But once Santa Claus started selling sodas, everything deteriorated, Bishop Staglianò told the children of the church.

Trying to contain the fallout, a spokesperson for the diocese, Don Alessandro Paolino, wrote on the diocese’s Facebook page, “on behalf of the bishop, I express my sadness for this statement which has created disappointment among the most small, and I want to clarify that Monsignor Staglianò’s intentions were quite different.

He then picked up where the bishop left off, denouncing “Santa Claus aka consumerism, the desire to own, buy, buy and buy again.”

Bishop Staglianò said he was not against all gifts, but had to be a thoughtful, well-selected gift – when not in stores, then “delivered by Amazon ”- and hand delivered.

Despite the fervor of his anti-Santa salvo, it was ultimately not up to the sight of Old Saint-Nick on horseback in front of the church. The children shouted around him as he dismounted, sat on a red throne and handed out crayons, candy and other gifts, said Ms Scarnato, the teacher.

“Once they were outside the church, the talk died down because they were in love with Saint Nicholas,” she said. “They were happy.”

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