“The latest Grinch of December 25th” who, “from the pulpit,” has erased the “dreams and magic in the hearts of children.”

This is how Italian media described Bishop Antonio Staglianò after he told a group of children that Santa Claus did not exist, sparking a week of backlash from parents to international media.

“He has seen fit to tear through the veil of illusion that every child tenaciously holds over his eyes for the longest time possible in order to continue to believe in a dream,” one national newspaper said.

The Catholic bishop leads the Diocese of Noto on the Italian island region of Sicily. His comments about Santa Claus, called “Babbo Natale” in Italian, were made to families in the Basilica del Santissimo Salvatore on Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra.

After Staglianò’s comments on the beloved Christmas character caused controversy on social media, the diocesan spokesman said the bishop did not want “to break the charm of Christmas for little ones, but to help them reflect more deeply.”

In multiple media interviews this weekend, the bishop stated that “he did not tell them that Santa Claus does not exist, but we spoke about the need to distinguish what is real from what is not real. So I gave the example of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a saint who brought gifts to the poor, not presents.”

Staglianò said he was trying to make a point about the commercialization of Christmas and the figure of Santa Claus as seen in Coca-Cola commercials, which he argued takes away from the “culture of gift” at the foundation of the real message of Christmas: that “the baby Jesus was born to give himself to all of humanity.”

The Diocese of Noto’s communications manager wrote in a statement posted to Facebook Dec. 9, that, “on behalf of the bishop, I express my sorrow for this declaration which has generated disappointment in little ones.”

“If from the figure of Santa Claus (originating from Bishop St. Nicholas) we can draw a lesson — everyone, young and old — it is this: fewer gifts to ‘give’ and ‘consume,’ more ‘gifts’ to share, rediscovering the beauty of feeling that we are ‘all brothers,’” he said.

More in Europe

It is not the first time that Italians have had a strong reaction to a denial of Santa Claus by Catholic clergy.

In 2015, a group of parents dressed as elves and protested in the square outside the church after a parish priest and catechists told their children the jolly man in the red suit is not real.

The parents, from the town of Antey-Saint-André in the Italian Alps, gathered signatures for a petition asking the region’s bishop to “evaluate” the priest’s behavior.