Furious parents say priest stole Christmas 'magic' while answering question about Santa Claus

A priest is facing criticism from parents in Chatham, Ont., over how he answered a student's question about Santa Claus.

French Catholic board, Catholic Diocese express reget over incident with Grade 5 class in Chatham, Ont.

Martin Packham's and Crystal Verhoeven's son in Grade 5 in Chatham, Ont., was told Santa Claus wasn't real. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Editor's note: Santa could not be reached for comment, but sources say he is busy getting toys ready for Christmas. The story below is not for little ones  or believers of any age.

Is Santa Claus real?

Well, according to a priest who spoke with a Grade 5 class in Chatham, Ont., the answer is no.

One parent, Martin Packham, said the priest was speaking with the class at École élémentaire catholique Sainte-Marie via Zoom last Wednesday when a student asked why Santa Claus comes on Jesus's birthday.

Packham said Rev. Terry Runstedler of the Parish of Immaculate Conception in Chatham responded by asking the students which grade they were in.

Upon hearing the students were in Grade 5, the priest claimed the students understood that Santa wasn't real and he went on to talk about St. Nicholas, according to Packham.

"For us, it's just, very upsetting because this man whom we've never met, who's never met our children before came in to an entire classroom of children and decided to steal the magic," said Packham, whose son, Bently, was in the class.

Priest 'distraught' over incident, diocese says

Matthew Clarke, a spokesperson for the Diocese of London, said the priest misspoke. 

"The priest made a mistake assuming the children were past the age of believing in Santa Claus and talked about the wonderful history of St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop who, tradition tells us, gave gifts in secret," a written statement said.

"The priest in question was distraught to learn that some children were upset by his visit. He has privately apologized to one affected family for his mistake and offers his heartfelt public apology to all the children in the class and their families." 

The Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, the French Catholic school board in the area, said in a written statement that it is aware of the incident and regrets it took place.

"We also value the magic and wonder of Christmas, and know how much it means to our students, especially in stressful times such as those the world is currently experiencing," a statement from the school board read.

"We understand that the school has apologized to parents of the children involved."

Dad on Santa: 'I still believe'

For his part, Martin Packham said he still has faith in Santa.

"I still believe. Going to sleep on Christmas Eve waiting for reindeer on the roof." 

Santas are everywhere in the family's house, along with other decorations for the holidays, but now with their son doubting the existence of Santa, it's changed the way they are entering the holiday.

"We're just trying to find ways to make him understand that that's not the only thing that is magical about Christmas," said Bently's mother, Crystal Verhoeven.

Packham said that in a followup conversation with the priest, he was not remorseful. 

"He just said it was really unfortunate. He said 'I just wanted to tell them the truth' and he told me at one point, 'I guess he'll just have to look up to mommy and daddy now." 

WATCH | Parents say they're devastated after son learns truth about Santa: 

Parents devastated after son learns truth about Santa from a priest

10 months ago
Duration 1:49
Martin Packham and Crystal Verhoeven say they had limited time to enjoy Santa's magic with their son Bently, who now has a lot of questions about the man in the red suit, after a priest said he wasn't real.

Scott Sparling, whose daughter was also in the class, said the conversation with the priest was about Advent, the period of preparation leading up to Christmas. His daughter was left questioning other figures associated with holidays.

"I was moved to tears when I was discussing it with her afterwards because she was just shell shocked," he said.

Sparling said that according to his daughter, the school's principal, who was on the call, did turn on her camera after the priest made the remark about Santa.

"I don't think anyone would have ever thought that someone would have let that out in a discussion with 10-year-olds," he said.

Packham and Verhoeven with their kids on a Christmas morning. Packham says he'll still be waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. (Submitted by Martin Packham)


Jacob Barker


Jacob Barker is a videojournalist for CBC Windsor.


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