Banned Books Awareness: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”

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’Twas the night before Christmas and someone stole Santa’s pipe.

Yes, folks- yet another beloved tale from childhood has become the latest victim of the red pen of politically correct censorship as tradition and historical accuracy fall to ignorance and arrogance.

The 18th-century poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”- more commonly known by its famous first line, ’Twas the night before Christmas- is a tale of holiday magic that has delighted children worldwide for generations and has become a staple of holiday traditions in many an American home as children bundle up with hot cocoa on Christmas Eve and listen to the timeless story of Santa Claus and his yearly trek across the world to spread cheer.

But that’s all about to change.

The American literary world was shaken and battle lines were drawn recently all because a self-published author has taken it upon herself to edit the classic and remove all mention of smoking from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 masterpiece.

Canadian publisher Pamela McColl changed the poem to “save lives and avoid influencing new smokers,” according to statements on her website.

McColl’s new version, which she released through her own publishing company, cuts two lines that describe Santa smoking: ‘The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, / And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;’ and she also omits the iconic illustration of Santa holding the pipe between his teeth.

“I just really don’t think Santa should be smoking in the 21st century,” McColl was quoted as saying in a telephone interview.

She took refuge behind her website to release the following statement: “I have edited out a few words and lines that reference Santa smoking and removed the cover illustration of his pipe. The omission of these few words do not change the material intent of the author nor do they infringe on the reader’s understanding or enjoyment of this historically-rich story, but by removing these words we may save lives and avoid influencing new smokers. I think these edits outweigh other considerations. If this text is to survive another 200 years it needs to modernize and reflect today’s realities. I want children to celebrate the spirit of giving and to reflect proudly on the holiday traditions that shape their childhood, and the best way to honor Santa and this story is to make him smoke-free.”

The American Library Association has gone on record that the changes amount to “an act of censorship that denies the audience access to the author’s authentic voice.”

I have to agree; and I think of another famous writer whose works have had a similar fate in recent years- Mark Twain, whose classics have been revised to omit “offensive words” that were common vernacular for the time.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said that “such censorship misrepresents the artist’s original work and relies wholly on the idea that children are incapable of critical thinking or that a parent’s guidance and training are meaningless.”

She suggested that “a far better path would be providing tools for parents who want to raise the issue with their children rather than suppressing Clement Moore’s speech. One person’s beliefs- no matter how well-meaning- should not be used to deny youth and families the ability to read Clement Moore’s original poem for their own enjoyment.”

Again, I couldn’t agree more. This is yet another incident in which the insecurities of a so-called modern mentality are running roughshod and revising history to fit the censors’ self-righteous sensitivities. It is an insult to fact and logic. Smoking was a common practice and this image of a man is befitting of the 19th century, folks- step out of the bubble and deal with it. That’s the whole point of history- to learn from our mistakes.

“A lot of people my age have lost someone to smoking,” McColl said, herself a former smoker, “And I thought, ‘Oh my. This is a great project.’”

So, with illustrators Elena Almazova and Vitaly Shvarov, McColl put out the new version in Spanish, English, and French with a note from Santa on the back flap that says he has “…decided to leave all of that old tired business of smoking well behind us.”

The reaction has been mixed, to say the least. It has drawn support from children’s advocates and pediatricians, but strong criticism from librarians and those who oppose censorship. Many critics cast serious doubt that the image of Santa’s pipe gets children to light up, and they say that it’s not okay to hack away at the original poem.

“My fear is not that kids will read [it] 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.

“It bespeaks of such a wholesale misunderstanding of what literature is or does. 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.”

The New York Post reported that The National Coalition Against Censorship said that “putting children in an insulation bubble, hoping to protect them from anything their parents may deem harmful, is not only impossible, it is unproductive.”

“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,” McColl said.

I’m no supporter of smoking by anyone, let alone children; but even I thought a comment by David Savona, a blogger on the website Cigar Aficionado, was spot on when he stated, “I have no issue with a person coming up with a story that doesn’t mention smoking, or one that talks about smoking being bad for you. If it’s your story, you can write it any way you please. But rather than having the creativity to imagine a tale of her own, to pluck words from the ether and place them together in a way that people might find as memorable, endearing and entertaining as the original, McColl simply took out her red pen and cut out the words she didn’t like. That’s not writing- that’s censoring.”
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 to the LA Times. “That’s Jamie Oliver and other people’s issue.”

How smug is this person?

But the truth is that she doesn’t stop with just smoking. She may have a blasé faire attitude about the obesity thing, but she does take issue on animal rights.

In the back flap of her new version it also states, in the supposed “Letter from Santa,” that the fur on his iconic suit is fake. That ought to appease to the folks over at PETA, but why not go all out. Obviously he’s an animal abuser who wears the skin of his victims, but he also chains them up and forces them to drive his sleigh as he breaks into homes around the world to offer free candy and gifts to our children- an obvious indoctrination into the welfare system; all the while helping himself by engorging on our cookies and milk. He’s teaching our kids to abuse animals, expect free hand outs, and have poor dietary habits because being overweight is awesome.

McColl’s Twas the Night Before Christmas has also made the Grammar Nazi emerge from my psyche, as it is published without the apostrophe before the “t” in “’twas.” I think she needs a history and a grammar lesson.

Speaking of history lessons- Clement Moore came from a prominent family and his father, Benjamin Moore, was the Bishop of New York who officiated at the inauguration of George Washington.

Smoking may be a practice that will not stand the test of time but we can’t ignore its history or its place in literature and character. For all the good that it does, there are times that the politically correct movement gets a little too full of itself and steps outside of the boundary of logic and good intentions. Trying to create a meaningful future by revising and ignoring the past is counterproductive to tradition and a disservice to critical thinking. The greatest gift you can give the next generation is not in taking a red pen to past traditions but by creating new ones that in time will become just as beloved and cherished on those cold winter nights.

 

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html

Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, Guardian UK, Telegraph UK, Daily Mail, Examiner, Cigar Aficionado, LA Times
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions