Santa holds a pipe in this illustration by Thomas Nast from a century ago. (Thomas Nast / Bettmann Archive )
As a role model, Santa’s got some health issues. He’s overweight, and he zooms around the world in terrible weather and drops down soot-filled chimneys. But worst of all in the mind of anti-smoking crusader Pamela McColl is that “stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth.”
“I just really don’t think Santa should be smoking in the 21stcentury,” McColl said by telephone. And she did something about it – published a version of the beloved poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” with the smoking references – including illustrations – excised.
It’s tough to find anyone who would advocate for children to smoke, but that’s not to say the new version of the poem is getting unanimous support. Critics doubt Santa’s pipe will get youngsters to light up, and they say it's not OK to muck with the original poem.
“My fear is not that kids will read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' and take up smoking. My fear is that kids will take their cues from models I revere nowhere near as much as I revere literature,” said David Kipen, owner of Libros Schmibros bookstore in Los Angeles and a longtime literature advocate.
McColl, a Canadian publisher, said she came across a smoking Santa while browsing in a library. It was, she said, a eureka moment.
“I grew up in the '60s, in the ‘Mad Men’ series,” said McColl, herself a former smoker. And when she looked at her childhood edition of the Christmas Eve story, she found Santa smoking on half of the pages.
“A lot of people my age have lost someone to smoking,” McColl said. “And I thought, ‘Oh my. This is a great project.’”
“… And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath,” reads the poem, first published in 1823 and attributed to Clement C. Moore – and called by virtually everyone “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
So with illustrators Elena Almazova and Vitaly Shvarov, McColl put out the new version (published by Grafton and Scratch, in Spanish, English and French), with a note from Santa on the back flap that says his fur is fake and he has “decided to leave all of that old tired business of smoking well behind us.”
The reaction, McColl said, has been mixed: support from children’s advocates and pediatricians but strong criticism from librarians and those who oppose censorship.
“It bespeaks such a wholesale misunderstanding of what literature is or does,” Kipen said. “Given a choice of kids smoking or not smoking, I would come out on the side of kids not smoking. But I don’t think the means justify the ends.”
He added, "Smoking killed my dad, so it’s not like I'm an apologist for the devil weed."
McColl said she’s not out to eliminate the other versions of the tale.
“I didn’t run into any opposition until someone said he’s a historical figure. He’s not historical to the people I’m worried about. To children, he’s real. He’s coming down the chimney and he’s smoking in the middle of the living room,” she said.
As for Santa’s “chubby and plump” stature, McColl said she’ll leave that to others.
“He doesn’t eat in the story. That’s not my issue," she said. "That’s Jamie Oliver and other people’s issue.”