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Sanitizing Santa

December 11, 2012 - Jodelle Greiner
Read an article on the AP Wire today that Santa has been sanitized.

Pamela McColl of Vancouver, Canada, has published a new version of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. She took out the lines "The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth. And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath." She added a note on the cover: "Edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of children of the 21st century." and a letter from Santa on the back jacket flap explaining that "all of that old tired business of smoking" is over and all of the fur trim on his costume is faux, by the way.

McColl, 54, was so determined to get her version out she mortgaged her house and put up $200,000 for the book and tours. The AP article said when she was 18, she had to pull her father out of his burning bed because he fell asleep smoking. McColl even smoked herself as a teen, but quit. McColl told the AP she published the new version because Santa is real to little kids and they do pick up on the smoking references.

While I admire her resolve in following her beliefs, I cringe at her editing a classic work and I think that kids pay more attention to the presents Santa is bringing than the fact that he’s smoking.

I grew up with three grandparents who smoked. One of my grandpas, the one who lived on the farm with us, smoked a pipe. To this day, whenever I see a red Prince Albert tobacco can, it takes me back to my grandma’s enclosed porch where she kept a box of stuff for us grandkids to play with, including one of those cans. I remember as a kid handling Grandpa’s pipes and putting them in the pipe holder, where they stood on end.

My grandparents were certainly more important to me than Santa Claus, whom I never believed was real. Although I loved my grandparents, I never felt I needed to emulate their smoking. Neither of my parents smoked and none of us kids have. (The nephews, however, are a different story.)

I really don’t think hearing “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” a few times a year around the holidays will prompt kids to smoke. I bet if you asked kids who smoke why they started, that would not be one of the reasons — it’ll probably be something like “it’s cool” or “all my friends do it,” not “Santa does it, so I will!”

Furthermore, as a writer myself, it sets my teeth on edge when some modern person decides they have to re-write an old work, just because they don’t like some aspect of it.

The AP article mentioned that Mark Twain’s classics “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” have been edited by replacing the n-word with “slave.” I don’t like that, either.

I do like what Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association said about McColl’s new version.

"This wasn't a retelling. This wasn't a parody. This wasn't an adaptation. This wasn't a modernization. This wasn't fanfic. This was presenting the original but censoring the content,” Caldwell-Stone told the AP. “That kind of expurgation that seeks to prevent others from knowing the original work because of a disapproval of the ideas, the content, is a kind of censorship that we've always disapproved of."

When an author writes — and Mark Twain was great at this — they show a reflection of the times and their work is a commentary on what is happening at that point in history, either for or against. Twain was showing what was happening in his time, not only with slavery, but society. By sanitizing these works, we don’t get a clear picture of what was happening at that time. And when we don’t get history right, we lose our perspective on what our forebearers went through and how we got to our own point in history. We can see that with “separation of church and state” and those who deny the Jewish Holocaust happened.

I don’t think editing the Santa story will have that kind of an impact, but it is a slippery slope, as they say. While this version of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” may have no lasting impact down the road, where does this altering business end?

If McColl is worried about kids wanting to smoke, I’d suggest she work on getting the adults in those kids’ lives to quit. That will do more good than re-writing a classic.


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