Ottawa Citizen

Let Santa smoke his pipe

- IAN HUNTER Ian Hunter is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the Fac­ulty of Law at West­ern Univer­sity. Santa Claus · North Pole, AK · United States of America · William Shakespeare · William Shakespeare · Shakespeare · Mark Twain · Enid Blyton · George Orwell · C. S. Lewis

The big­gest “Ho, ho, ho” of the 2012 Christ­mas sea­son came not from jolly old St. Nick him­self but from the ef­forts of a Cana­dian, Pamela McColl by name, to re­form him. She has pre­pared a new ver­sion of the clas­sic poem The Night Be­fore Christ­mas to elim­i­nate ref­er­ence to Santa Claus smok­ing. Her il­lus­tra­tor will no doubt come up with ac­com­pa­ny­ing plates de­pict­ing a smoke-free North Pole work­shop.

The orig­i­nal poem was writ­ten in 1823 by Cle­ment Moore; the cou­plet that has McColl’s knick­ers in a knot reads:

“The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it en­cir­cled head like a wreath.”

McColl has ex­cised that be­cause she is wor­ried that it might teach chil­dren that smok­ing is ac­cept­able.

“I edited this poem as stud­ies out

his of the United States in the 1990s showed that the de­pic­tion of car­toon characters smok­ing in­flu­ences young chil­dren ages three to seven to­wards to­bacco prod­ucts,” a news report quotes McColl as say­ing.

Ah, yes — stud­ies, no doubt un­der­taken by a harm­less drudge some­where as­pir­ing to a ten­ure-track po­si­tion in so­ci­ol­ogy. Per­son­ally, when I hear the word “stud­ies” I dis­count ev­ery­thing that fol­lows, but no doubt McColl would dis­ap­prove of that.

I grew up on the older ver­sion of The Night Be­fore Christ­mas and, decades later, I smoked a pipe for many years. So what fur­ther proof is re­quired? My only con­cern is whether Ms. McColl has gone far enough.

In my rec­ol­lec­tion, Santa was a pudgy char­ac­ter, ro­tund, not to say fat; should she sneak in a cou­plet in praise of ex­er­cise? Af­ter all, one can­not meet one’s daily fi­bre re­quire­ments by gorg­ing on sugar plums.

Is Santa’s sleigh equipped with seat­belts?

It is a ter­ri­ble and ar­ro­gant thing for any­one to pre­sume to rewrite what a dead au­thor said, but in this case at least it is not dan­ger­ous.

And is it safe to gal­li­vant on icy rooftops and slide down chim­neys? And what of those gunny sacks of gifts Santa and his rein­deer haul around the world; are we san­guine about the con­tents?

Even par­ents who leave milk and a cookie on the mantel have rea­son to worry; can they be con­fi­dent that the cookie has not come in con­tact with peanuts and that the milk is safe for the lac­tose-in­tol­er­ant?

McColl seems to be a de­scen­dent in spirit, if not lin­eage, of Thomas Bowdler, the 19th cen­tury English physi­cian who made it his life’s work to prune the Shake­spearean canon in or­der to ex­cise all the naughty bits. Bowdler said that his pur­pose was to make Shake­speare avail­able to all “with­out in­cur­ring the dan­ger of fall­ing un­awares among words or ex­pres­sions which are of such a na­ture as to raise a blush on the cheek of mod­esty.”

To­day a Vic­to­rian cheek would re­main in con­stant blush — with­out cos­metic as­sis­tance; I think that might be ac­cept­able to McColl as long as the cheek had sun­screen on of an ac­cept­able SPF. The blush oc­ca­sioned by mod­esty has gone the way of the whale-boned corset or the type­writer, but still cen­sors re­main busy; Mark Twain, Enid Bly­ton, and C.S. Lewis have all been sub­ject to po­lit­i­cally cor­rect re­vi­sion. Even Frank and Joe, the Hardy Boys, to­day speak more like young men re­turn­ing from an NDP pol­icy con­ven­tion than sleuths on the heels of das­tardly crim­i­nals.

In the ocean of ab­sur­dity that passes for con­tem­po­rary life, McColl’s ef­forts are an in­con­se­quen­tial droplet. In Ge­orge Or­well’s dystopian novel 1984, a hugely in­flu­en­tial book in its time but largely for­got­ten to­day, it was not rhyming cou­plets but whole slices of his­tory that were dis­patched down the me­mory hole.

Against this back­ground, some­one like McColl would seem more a crank than a men­ace. Thomas Bowdler ut­terly failed in his mis­sion to rewrite Shake­speare; only his name sur­vives in in­famy.

In the shades Cle­ment Moore need not vex him­self over McColl’s at­tempt to im­prove The Night Be­fore Christ­mas; it is a ter­ri­ble and ar­ro­gant thing for any­one to pre­sume to rewrite what a dead au­thor said, but in this case at least it is not dan­ger­ous.

We need not, in other words, si­lence Pamela McColl, nor mock her mis­guided ef­forts; it will be enough to greet her on the street with a surly “Bah, hum­bug.”

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