The Corner

Rehabilitating Santa Claus

You have to be a particularly zealous sort of killjoy to read about the exploits of much-beloved fictional characters and to conclude that they’d make good candidates for rehabilitation, and Canadian anti-smoking zealot Pamela McColl is just that sort of killjoy. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

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 21st century,” 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 is favorite rhetorical trick of progressive types to start calls for change with “in the 21st century,” as if the very fact of modernity serves as an adequate substitute for an argument. (It does not.) But let’s leave that hoary old canard aside for one moment and play along with McColl’s conceit. To do so is to invite a question: If the 21st century requires the rehabilitation of our historical figures’ personal habits, what else must we change about them? ”When [McColl] looked at her childhood edition of the Christmas Eve story,” the paper explains, “she found Santa smoking on half of the pages.”

Shock horror! Guilty as charged! Santa Claus smokes! He also breaks and enters, travels without a passport, violates the terms of goodness knows how many countries’ airspace, and doesn’t pay taxes. He is overweight and he has little plan to do much about it. He’s a terrible drunk, at least in Britain and Australia, where he is left sherry; and in Ireland, where he is traditionally provided with beer. He fails on the diversity and equal-protection fronts, too. His name, “Santa Claus,” comes from the Christian tradition, and yet he presumes imperiously to shower gifts on all the world’s children. Well, actually not all of them. Being a dastardly Manichean sort, Santa divides children into “naughty” and “nice” categories and allocates their gifts accordingly. Moreover, his offerings are desperately unequal: Some children get more and nicer gifts than others. In some households, parents do not receive any at all. 

McColl continues:

“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.”

Perhaps I just had an especially well-adjusted childhood, but had the prospect of a strange man coming down the chimney of my home in the dead of night made me uncomfortable, it wouldn’t have been due to a nagging worry that he had a Zippo lighter and a cheeky pack of Rothman’s about his person. As a kid, I knew people who smoked — I saw it all the time on the street, and on television — but I didn’t know people who made a habit of flying around on a sleigh, shimmying down into my house while I slept, getting their drink on, leaving gifts, and then flying off into the night air drunk as a lord. The whole thing is fantastical — why remove one part and not the other?

The answer is: Because Pamela McColl is a zealot, content to hijack anything to advance her agenda. The Night Before Christmas is a poem with an established sequence of words and themes — words that reflect their time and their context. To change old poetry to suit modern mores is an act of cultural vandalism. This idea was well lampooned in the movie adaptation of Chris Buckley’s hysterical book, Thank You for Smoking. The film ends at a congressional hearing, during which an anti-smoking senator is asked whether his plan to remove digitally cigarettes from old movies isn’t perhaps changing history. “No, no,” he replies. “I think of it as making history better.” He’d have an ally in Pamela McColl. The pair of them should have enemies in the rest of us.


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