ROME – All that separated the perpetual Sicilian schoolchildren from meeting the ancient Saint Nick – who arrived on horseback, with his long white beard, scarlet cloak, and bag full of presents – was a Christmas message from the Bishop of Noto.
“Santa Claus is a fictional character,” exclaimed Bishop Antonio Stagliano.
The children’s jaws fell and the wool of the holiday fell from their eyes, as the bishop continued for several long minutes in the church of Santissimo Salvatore to hold on to Santa, who said he did not care about cash-strapped families.
“The red color of his coat was chosen by Coca-Cola for advertising purposes,” said the bishop. He added that the large sodas “use the image to portray themselves as a symbol of healthy values”.
The bishop’s criticism against Papo Natale, as Father Christmas is called here, constituted only the last part in what has become a new Italian holiday tradition. Almost every year, the Roman Catholic clergy insist that in order for Italians to keep Christ at Christmas, Santa Claus must be banished.
In 2019, a priest in the northern town of Magliano Albe told children that no man in red would deliver gifts “magically”. In 2018, in the Sardinian city of Quarto Sant’Elena, another priest broke into tears when he revealed that Santa Claus was actually none other than their mothers and fathers.
Giuliana Scarnato, one of the teachers accompanying the children, as young as 9, on a school trip to the church in Noto, said this year’s episode, on December 6, St. Nicholas’ Day, was particularly rude.
She said the bishop “could have left Santa Claus out of that,” but made the point of Father’s description of Christmas as “imaginative, that he didn’t exist.” She said that when one of the children protested, telling the bishop that her parents had confirmed that Santa Claus was real, the clergyman replied that the child should tell her parents, “You are lying.”
In an interview, Bishop Staglianò said that he remembered his situation more tactfully, and insisted that he simply explained that the roots of Santa – whom he portrayed as a harmful product of the soft-drink-consumer complex – lie in the historical figure of St. Nicholas, benevolent bishop of Myra from the 4th century, in modern Turkey, who, according to tradition, cared for the poor.
He had strong feelings about this subject.
“Is Father’s Day a father to everyone, or just some?” He said, making holes in the box of Santa Claus. “During the lockdown, Father Christmas has not visited the families he used to visit. Why? He is definitely not fearful of the coronavirus.”
Bishop fondly recalls the days when Italian children sent their wish lists to baby Jesus, “Not Santa Claus and the reindeer and let’s go to the movies and go bowling and all that American junk.”
This year, the Nationalists opened a new front in the Battle of Italy in the form of Christmas. In a desperate bid for a popular cause in a period of political stability, they picked up the American right’s claim to its opposition to war at Christmas.
For them, the main target was not Santa Claus but the European Union.
In November, a conservative Italian newspaper discovered that the European Union’s commissioner’s office had drafted internal correspondence guidelines, calling for more inclusive, gender-neutral language and less privacy for the holidays.
“Not everyone celebrates Christian holidays, and not all Christians celebrate them on the same dates,” states the document, which advised employees to avoid phrases like “Christmas time can be stressful.” It’s better if it’s “stressful holidays.”
The tension came on immediately, with far-right leaders going into town.
Matteo Salvini, the nationalist leader and former deputy prime minister, posted on social media a picture of a severed statue of the Virgin Mary in a hole.
Mr Salvini, who is not particularly religious but often portrays himself as an apologist for Christianity, wrote on Facebook, “The European Commission calls on us not to celebrate Holy Christmas so as not to offend others, and some idiots are doing these terrible things.”
Another right-wing nationalist politician, Giorgia Meloni, told the conservative Libero newspaper that the EU directives were “shameful”.
“No one is offended by a child being born in a manger,” she added.
Even Pope Francis – who has suggested that national leaders are not Christian for their opposition to immigrants – echoed them when it came to canceling Christmas.
Asked about the EU document earlier this month, Francis said, “This is an anachronism,” and accused the bloc of following in the footsteps of totalitarians. “In history,” he said, “many dictatorships” have tried to “undermine the Church.” “Think of Napoleon. From there, think of the Nazi dictatorship, communism.”
But Francis has not yet rallied to defend Santa Claus from his bishop’s statements, and the Vatican did not respond to a request for comment.
Bishop Stagliano argued that he was fully compatible with Francis.
“With all due respect,” he said, “Santa Claus only gives gifts to those who have money” whether the children were naughty or kind.
He said the poor families and immigrants he visits every Christmas “have never seen Santa Claus.” So he urged the children in the church to ask for more gifts from Santa Claus, and if he showed up, explain to him that they could now give them to the poor children “because you never visited!”
He said that none of the mothers in the church dared contradict him and that some children, encouraged by his preaching, spoke with the power of revelation. “I always knew that, my father was Santa Claus,” said one of the children.
The bishop said that breaking the Christmas “spell” was a progression, remembering that as a young child he wrote letters asking Santa for money and putting it under his father’s dinner plate. He will find an envelope with a few thousand Italian lira under his pillow.
But he knew at the age of four that he was his father, he said, and argued that the 7-year-olds in the seats know the whole score, too. The 62-year-old bishop said he hadn’t shattered any illusions with sugar plums.
Referring to his generation, he said, “If we know, imagine these kids with their smartphones.”
Tradition says that Saint Nicholas was kind to children and gave gold coins to three poor sisters who would have turned to prostitution. Over the centuries he became a saint, among other things, for children, bettors and Russia. Many Russians still travel today to the southern Italian city of Bari where his relics, stolen by sailors centuries ago, are kept in the Basilica of San Nicola.
The tradition of Saint Nicholas eventually spread north, where the Dutch called it Sinterklaas, a form of Saint Nicholas. The Dutch settled New Amsterdam, later New York, where English speakers in the American colonies converted the saint’s name to Santa Claus.
Charges of reindeer, sleigh, Christmas Eve, and a big belly were added in the 19th century—as was the red coat, which was the standard Santa costume long before Coca-Cola got involved.
Bishop Staliano told the children in the church: But as soon as Santa started selling soft drinks, everything went down hill.
In an attempt to contain the repercussions, the Archdiocese spokesman, Don Alessandro Paolino, wrote on the diocesan Facebook page, “On behalf of the bishop, I express my sadness at this announcement, which has caused disappointment to the young, and I want to specify that Mgr. Staglianò’s intentions were quite different.”
Then he turned back where the bishop had left off, denouncing “Santa Claus aka consumerism, the desire to own, buy, buy and buy again.”
Bishop Staglianò said he’s not against giving all gifts, but that it should be a thoughtful, well-chosen gift – when not in stores, then “delivered by Amazon” – and hand-delivered.
Despite his anti-Santa fervor, he was ultimately no match for the sight of Saint Nick on horseback outside the church. The children shouted about him as he got off his feet, and they sat on a red chair and handed out pencils, candy, and other gifts, said the teacher, Mrs. Scarnato.
“Once they left the church, the speech faded away because they were in love with Saint Nicholas,” she said. “They were happy.”