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Why stop with Santa's pipe? Let's put him on a treadmill

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Column by David B. Whitlock

I never thought much about Santa smoking a pipe in Clement Moore’s 1823 poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” but now that a new edition of the poem has taken his pipe away, I think I miss it.

Would somebody please give Santa his pipe back? I don’t want him rummaging through my cabinets, frantically trying to find some tobacco for a post sugar-cookie nicotine fix.

Here’s the skinny on Santa and his pipe: It seems self-published Canadian author Pamela McColl decided children and parents should be protected from images of smoking. So she mortgaged her house and sank $200,000 into publishing and promoting her version of Moore’s classic poem. 

“Wouldn’t it be sad if we saw a poem that’s so incredibly influential in our celebration of Christmas cast aside because we didn’t make a simple edit and took out a simple verse that’s offensive to modern children?” she asked.

In order to make Santa less “offensive,” the pipe had to go. Out went the lines, “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth/and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.”

Then McColl hired an illustrator to redraw a sanitized Santa without that protruding pipe and tobacco swirl of smoke encircling his head.

Finally, she made it read like it was Santa’s decision to go tobacco free: "Edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of children of the 21st century," she added to the book’s cover.

I don’t miss Santa’s pipe because I long for a smoke. I never was very good at that anyway, although I do admit that during graduate school I smoked a pipe for a brief period of time — at least long enough for someone (Santa himself?) to give me a pipe one Christmas.

Cradling that pipe in my hand, I felt like Santa and I had bonded. The trouble was I spent more time tamping on the tobacco and relighting the thing than I did studying. Besides, the librarian frowned on the presence of a pipe, even an unlit one, on her terrain.

So I gave it up rather easily.

Now, my granddad, whom we affectionately called, “Pappy,” knew how to use tobacco. He could spit with the best of them and his “nasty little habit,” as Grandmother called it, made finding him a Christmas present all the more easy and uncomplicated. One single trip to the grocery store for a box of Top chewing tobacco and we were done.

I loved breathing in the pungent tobacco odor before surrendering the box to mom for wrapping. It was plug tobacco because, according to Pappy, “anything else has additives in it and that makes it something entirely different than baccy.”

I don’t know what brand of pipe “baccy” Clement Moore gave Santa, but why have these insensitive moderns chosen Christmas as the time to break him of a gentle smoke? I just hope he doesn’t let his nervous, sweating, shaking, nicotine needy hands grab his whip and in a fit of frustration start relentlessly popping Dasher, Dancer, Donner, and Blitzen.

And what about these “modern children” who are supposedly offended by Santa’s lone vice? (Well, the only vice I know of.) What if Santa caves under pressure: “Enough already! I’m done! Get your own presents, I’m sitting down for some alone time with my pipe.”

I’m not the only one who’s calling for a return of Santa’s pipe.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the American Library Association’s deputy director for intellectual freedom likens the new version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” to Alan Gribben’s recently edited versions of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “Tom Sawyer,” which replaced the 200 or so occurrences of the “N” word with “slave.” Said Caldwell-Stone: "This was presenting the original but censoring the content. 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."

Removing Santa’s pipe, involves the “altering of a classic work of literature with a view toward protecting modern sensibilities or preventing children from being aware of the character of the original work," Caldwell-Stone concluded.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Ms. McColl. I say if Santa needs a makeover, why stop with the pipe? Put him on the treadmill, trim that beard, slap some contact lens on him and replace the sugar cookies with low-fat yogurt.

But then we wouldn’t recognize him, would we? Santa wouldn’t be Santa.

Santa, I’m with you. I miss your pipe, too, and I’ll do my part to get it back.

Just remember me when you shimmy down my chimney.

Dr. David B. Whitlock is a Baptist minister and author of "Life Matters." He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.