In the good old days French children burned Santa in effigy

Last year French parents were outraged by an advertisement that claimed Santa Claus wasn’t real. AdWeek reported:

"I have some bad news for you," a father says to his (grown) son right at the beginning of the spot. "Père Noël doesn’t really exist." Parents are all upset that their children’s illusions about the world will be shattered by this uninvited revelation, since the ad aired during a broadcast of Ratatouille. One child psychologist even claims this could have the effect of a "bomb" on children.

But 60 years ago attitudes in France were different. In a pastoral letter the Catholic Bishop of Toulouse wrote: "Do not speak of Santa Claus for the good reason that he does not exist and never existed. Do not speak of Santa Claus because Santa Claus is a fiction clever people use to remove all religious character from the Christmas holiday."

The bishop’s condemnation was only the beginning. In Dijon, a young priest, Abbe Nourissat, burned Santa in effigy in front of a crowd of cheering children who pelted him with orange peel.

As it happened, Santa rose again to deliver a speech from the town hall: "Nobody can kill me," he said, and assured the children that if they believed in him, there would be plenty of gifts.

Few people today would risk setting fire to Santa in a public place (although if you pretended to be Occupy protesters the media would almost certainly turn up with cameras). But the debate over Christmas and consumerism continues. A few years ago Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies rubbished the idea that materialism had spoiled Christmas. He traced the complaints back to Marxist theorists like Raymond Williams and Herbert Marcuse.

Oddly, French Catholics of the 1950s had similar suspicions about the red-suited Père Noël. According to news reports of the time: "Like many other seemingly unimportant questions, this one has a political angle in France. Communists and socialists are strongly anti-clerical, defenders of the public school where there is much talk of Santa Claus at this season."

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