Children at Queen of Peace School in Belleville misunderstood Bishop Edward Braxton’s message about Santa Claus Tuesday, the superintendent of schools for the Belleville Diocese said in a statement.
“I was quite surprised to learn that somehow some individuals incorrectly thought the bishop was going around the school telling little children that there is no Santa Claus. This is simply not true!” Jonathan Birdsong said in a statement Thursday afternoon. Birdsong was not immediately available for further comment on Thursday afternoon.
Parents said their children came home in tears after Braxton’s visit to the school on Tuesday, having been told that there was no Santa Claus and that they should not celebrate Halloween.
On Wednesday, parents had taken to social media and called the Belleville News-Democrat to share anger that their fifth- and sixth- grade students at Our Lady Queen of Peace School had been told by the bishop that there is no such thing as Santa. Hundreds of online posts were made, many with negative remarks about Braxton.
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“I was personally present in the classroom and I know exactly what the Bishop said and the context in which it was said,” wrote Birdsong. He called it “a complete misunderstanding” and stressed that the subjects of Santa and Halloween were brought up during talks with fifth- and sixth-grade students, not the younger grades.
Birdsong said the bishop had told the students that children in the past dressed as saints to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve and that the “good works of St. Nicholas was gradually changed into the story of Santa Claus.”
But kids talk, parents said.
“They hop in the car with (younger siblings) and say ‘Bishop said there’s no Santa Claus’,” said parent Boyd Ahlers, who has children in the fifth- and sixth-grades. “What’s that do to the kids 5, 6, 7 years old? All the kids are talking about it ... it just waterfalls.”
Birdsong said the bishop had asked fifth- and sixth-graders “in a passing remark” if they knew who St. Nicholas was, and who he is known as in popular culture. Braxton told the students that St. Nicholas was a Catholic bishop in Asia Minor who loved children and gave them gifts.
“He was speaking to fifth- and sixth-graders, who already knew the true story of St. Nicholas,” Birdsong said.
Another Queen of Peace parent who has a son in the sixth-grade and a daughter in kindergarten said the family was “hurt” by the bishop’s talk and are trying to shield their daughter from his remarks.
“When I found out about this, when my mother was picking them up from school, I called to give her fair warning,” said Ray Schott. “My concern is not just about one school, my concern is about the entire diocese. (Braxton) needs to learn to talk to certain levels of children; what he said is unacceptable. We are owed an apology.”