A New York Times article published this week begins with a superb piece of holiday theatricality. It was the first week of Advent and the feast day of St. Nicholas. Wide-eyed children were attending Mass at a cavernous and ornate Baroque-style basilica in Sicily, and a Roman Catholic bishop was launching a crusade: “ ‘Santa Claus,’ thundered Bishop Antonio Staglianò, ‘is an imaginary character.’ ”
In the speech last week, the bishop of Noto railed against Babbo Natale—the Italian Santa Claus figure, featured more heavily in the northern part of the country—and Santa’s red coat, which he said was “chosen by Coca-Cola for advertising purposes.” (The Times notes that the red outfit precedes the company’s marketing campaign, but it can’t be denied that Coca-Cola did what it could to boost the image.) Perhaps the best line in the Times story came from a disgruntled teacher:
She said that when one of the children protested, telling the bishop that her parents had assured her Santa was real, the cleric responded that the child should tell her parents “you tell lies.”
But here’s the thing: Staglianò is not an aberration. As the Times noted, Catholic clergy in the country have been railing against Santa for years. In 2018, a priest told Sardinian children that Santa was really their parents. The next year, a Northern Italian priest told the children no man “magically” delivered gifts. So what’s up with the Italian Catholic urge to puncture childhood fantasies?
It has two elements. The first is a relative ambivalence toward American-style Christian traditions. The other is the greater embrace of the pope’s general message.
At its heart, Staglianò’s message was an anti-capitalist one. Setting aside his tirade about Coca-Cola, the bishop complained that Santa’s real failure was his favoring of wealthier children over poorer ones. It seems that in Sicily, where the Santa Claus gift-giving tradition is a more recent import, the disparity in Santa gifts is not just in the cost of the gifts but in whether Santa makes an appearance at all; the bishop told the Times that “the poor families and migrants he visits every Christmas … ‘have never seen Santa Claus.’ ” He said he challenged the children in the pews to ask Santa “for even more gifts and, if he showed up, explain to him that they could now give to poor children ‘given that you never visit them!’ ” This message tracks with that of Pope Francis, who has long decried the burden of unregulated capitalism on the poor. It’s a less common position for bishops to take in the U.S., where Francis’ conservative opposition is most concentrated.
But as Vincent Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, noted, it’s also important to understand the way Italian Christmas has traditionally been celebrated. In the U.S., there is a nationalized and nondenominational Christmas culture, with little regional variation and a broadly secular appeal—a Christmas culture encouraged by, yes, advertising and retail, as well as popular media. According to Miller, who studies Catholic theology, culture, and consumerism, Italian Christmas celebrations tend to be very local, with festivals often dedicated to local saints, and with origins in ancient pre-Christian traditions. Globalization may have spread the fat, bearded, rosy-cheeked Santa across Europe, but the figure didn’t automatically carry with it the nostalgia and emotional attachment Americans tend to have.
Italians may also just care less because they care less in general about Christmas. According to Miller, in the 19th century, around the time reindeer and the red-coated Santa were added to the St. Nick tradition, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Northern European countries began to elevate Christmas to a more major holiday. “If you go back historically, it’s not a central part of the Catholic liturgical calendar,” Miller said. “The great Christian feasts have always been Good Friday and Easter Sunday. So there’s a good question of what’s actually being celebrated—it’s a celebration of abundance, of material gifts for those around us. And that’s all quite recent.”
(It’s also worth noting that the relics of St. Nicholas, a fourth century Greek bishop, are housed in a basilica in Bari, a city in southern Italy.* St. Nicholas, to the Italians, is first and foremost a religious figure.)
So while the Times reported that the children and teachers were upset after Staglianò’s anti-Santa diatribe, and while the diocese’s Facebook page apologized for “disappointment in the little ones,” it seems likely that the bishop stirred up less anger than he would have here in the U.S. But if any American bishops do decide to take up Staglianò’s crusade, he already gave the Times reporter a less region-specific defense they can call on. He knew at 4 that Santa wasn’t real, he said, so he wasn’t telling the kids in the pews anything new. “If we knew, imagine these kids with their smartphones.”
Correction, Dec. 28, 2021: This post originally misstated that the historical St. Nicholas was a Turkish bishop. He was the bishop of Myra, which lies within the boundaries of modern-day Turkey but was Greek at the time.