According to Canadian publishing house Grafton and Scratch, Santa Claus’s smoking is dangerous to children’s health. Not directly, however—the few puffs of pipe-smoke he leaves behind in each living room as he deposits his gifts is not what concerns editor and anti-smoking advocate Pamela McColl. Nor is it any concern that Santa might develop lung cancer, something he is no more likely to do than Thor to develop sclerosis of the liver from drinking bathtubs full of mead. Instead, it is the influential image of Santa—that, purportedly, of a smoker—that led McColl to alter ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to remove any reference to tobacco use. The new edition of the poem is not credited to her, however, but proclaims to be “edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of the children of the 21st century.”
The publication and its agenda raise a number of issues, not least the dignity of smokers, censorship, and the degree to which people are conditioned by what they simply see and hear. In addition, when it comes to highly imaginative literary characters such as Santa Claus in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, these issues must acknowledge a fictional context or risk appearing fanatical and ridiculous. Never mind Santa’s obesity, his predilection for breaking-and-entering, as well as the flying reindeer so fast they violate the space-time continuum — according to McColl, what really offends the world of fact is his pipe, and thus the rhyming couplet which mentions it:
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
The removal of the verse, and effectively the bowdlerization of the poem, raises a different set of ethical issues, that involving classic literature and the alteration of one of the most beloved, and few remaining, traditional figures in secular culture.
Revisionism and other liberties taken with the North American Father Christmas are nothing new, nor are they prohibited by copyright. Within the canon of literary works, songs, films, and images responsible for the West’s understanding of Santa Claus, the early-nineteenth-century poem A Visit From St. Nicholas—better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and attributed to American scholar Clement C. Moore (1779-1863)—is perhaps central, but has been open to adaptation and abuse for more than a century. Though copyright laws vary from country to country, no more than seventy years from the time of the author’s death will protect the integrity of an artistic work; in Canada it is fifty years. Once copyright expires, works are prone to everything from expurgation (Thomas Bowdler’s infamous Family Shakspere of 1818) to adaptations (Baba Brinkman’s Rap Canterbury Tales) to absolutely tasteless appropriations like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Jane Austen novels (including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Serpents). Though not always legitimate in terms of reception, such uses are perfectly legal and, because they use fictional characters, are perhaps less problematic than such projects as Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
The image of Santa Claus has, of course, been recruited for propaganda and advertising countless times before. Many continue to believe, for example, that Coca-Cola holds some sort of trademark for the red-and-white icon, when in fact the company merely exploited an established image between the years 1931 and 1964. He was even used to sell tobacco, in both leaf and cigarette form, during the First and Second World Wars. In these and other cases, it certainly seems ironic that no writer or publishing house guarantees dignified treatment for one of our civilization’s most celebrated and enduring figures. The gods are, in effect and for all their power, the most vulnerable characters in fiction.
The alteration of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to discourage smoking is, nevertheless, very different from the mere use of Santa’s likeness. The nearly two-hundred-year-old poem is as much an historical artifact as it is a poem, and among the many iconic images established by its verses—from eight flying reindeer to a fur-clad fat man—Santa’s pipe is a sociocultural lynchpin. The jolly old elf we know in North America is actually a very festive and indulgent figure, much different from his more austere European aspects and far from the (grimly) storied third-century bishop on which he is based. As Professor Gerry Bowler argues in Santa Claus: A Biography, Santa Claus became, in North America, an icon of the working class, no longer a religious authority figure, but a maverick giftgiver, his appearance and character reflective of the more boisterous celebrants of Christmastime—a roister-doister, flushed with drink, and with a belly like a bowl full of jelly. To this transformation, Bowler argues that the pipe of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was catalytic; “For Moore specifically to describe the length of St. Nicholas’s pipe is to lower him in social status and to remove him from the ranks of socially superior.” The gentry, who generally smoked long-stemmed pipes of the recurved variety, would instantly have recognized the implications. Santa was of and for the people, and more Falstaff than Father. In this respect, removing references to Santa’s pipe is a form of bourgeois vandalism, much worse in fact than replacing John Henry’s hammer with a Smart Car, or James Bond’s martini with a protein shake.
Though no less beloved than in the United States, Santa seems a particular target for activism in Canada. Last year, the environmentalist David Suzuki Foundation had a national fundraising campaign that claimed the North Pole was millimeters from melting, and people could pledge flotation devices to the reindeer. Meanwhile, scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado claimed the ice was at least three—and as much as five—metres thick.
Perhaps it is because the North Pole is technically in Canadian territory that Santa Claus has it a little rougher there; Canadians are known at home and abroad for their egalitarian hero-quashing, and Saint Nick is seen as one of their own. The cultural phenomenon known in Australia as “tall poppy syndrome” is in Canada given the maritime analogy of “lobsters in a bucket”: whenever one tries to rise above or climb out, the others collaborate to haul him back down again. Santa himself, however, doesn’t ever seem to notice or mind this stuff. It seems he has more important things to do.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com