ROME – As children around the world finalize the list of toys and trinkets they hope to find under the tree from Santa Claus this year, a new Grinch has emerged in Italy in the figure of Bishop Antonio Staglianò of Noto, who on Sunday, soured his congregation’s Christmas cheer.
He didn’t sneak around town stealing ornaments or presents, but rather stole the magic of the season’s most hallowed legend when he told his parishioners that not only does Santa Claus not exist, but that his distinguishing red robes were invented by the Coca Cola company for marketing purposes.
Speaking during Mass at the Holy Savior parish in Noto last Sunday, Staglianò told his congregation that, “Santa Claus does not exist and Coca Cola, but not only, uses his image to credit themselves as being the bearer of healthy values.”
“I add that the red of the clothes he wears was chosen by Coca Cola exclusively for advertising purposes,” he said.
Parents were shocked at the remark and children were confused and disillusioned at the revelation that the jolly St. Nick they had been so good for all year was nothing more than a fictional tale.
Staglianò later attempted to explain his reasoning for shattering the childhood story, insisting that Santa Claus is a fictional character, whereas his real-life inspiration, Saint Nicholas, is historical and had a real impact on the world around him.
“I encouraged young people to have a more embodied idea of Santa Claus in order to better live the period of waiting and above all the exchange of gifts,” Staglianò said, adding, “If Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas, children should open up to a feeling of mutual help, to the solidarity of gifts toward the poorest children.”
“With all due respect for the manufacturer Coca Cola, which invented Santa Claus, the bishop’s task is to announce evangelical charity, also through these symbols of popular culture,” he said.
Staglianò argued that dispelling the myth of Santa and urging children to imitate a real-life example of charity and giving “is a way of doing pop-theology and recovering the true meaning of the Christian tradition of Christmas.”
“For the rest, the children know that Santa Claus is their father or an uncle. So, no broken dreams,” he said.
Yet apparently enough dreams were broken, or at least enough parents were incensed, by Staglianò’s homily and his sloppy explanation that the communications director for the Noto diocese, Father Alessandro Paolino, issued a formal apology on the bishop’s behalf.
“First of all, in the name of the bishop, I express my sorrow for this declaration which has caused disappointment in little ones,” he said, insisting that Stagliano’s intentions “were quite different, that is, to reflect with greater awareness on the meaning of Christmas and the beautiful traditions that accompany it.”
Staglianò has also faced backlash over his jab at Coca Cola, with many pointing out that the characteristic red garments worn by Santa Claus were depicted long before the company ever started using them on their bottles.
Images printed before 1930 depicted a slim, elf-like Santa dressed in green, with a full beard, a hat, glasses, and boots, who more closely resembled a character from mythical folklore than the chubby, pink-faced Santa that is so commonplace today.
In a 1927 article in the New York Times a reference was made to a “standardized” Santa Claus, describing the figure clad in red that the world is familiar with today. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast also previously depicted him in red, in a Christmas card printed by Louis Prang.
While Coca Cola is not responsible for the by now universal red Santa suit, it does credit itself with the transformation of the image of Santa, saying on its website they helped shape the modern depiction of Santa, beginning in 1931 when the company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa Claus for their advertisements.
Sundblom drew inspiration for his character from the 1822 poem, “A Visit from S. Nicholas,” more commonly known as, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and ended up portraying him as a robust and cheerful man, rather than the small and gaunt figure of classic fables.
The Christmas blunder in Noto comes as leaders of the European Union are under fire for an attempt to “cancel Christmas,” or at least the use of the word, on grounds of inclusivity.
Earlier this month the office of the European Commissioner for Equality sent out a set of guidelines for internal use within EU offices which, among other things, sought to ban use of the word “Christmas” in order to promote “an inclusive communication.”
Signed by the European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli of Malta, the dossier was leaked to the Italian press, and backlash was so strong that the document was retracted a day later.
Yet while the political fallout of the EU dossier continues to be debated, it has become clear that the real Grinch this year comes from Noto.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen