“Does Santa smoke?” Or how to use Santa to talk to your kids about smoking

Image released by Applesauce Press from Charles Santore's 2011 version of The Night Before Christmas, showing Santa smoking his pipe.

Image released by Applesauce Press from Charles Santore’s 2011 version of The Night Before Christmas, showing Santa smoking his pipe.

The Five-Year-Old is fully informed of the dangers of smoking. With an ICU doctor for a father, there’s really no chance that she wouldn’t be. She feels so strongly about the perils of smoking that she has made it her personal mission to get those smokers she loves best to quit. So you can imagine her reaction when she discovered that she might have to add Santa to her list.

The Five-Year-Old, aghast after coming across a picture of Santa smoking a pipe: “Mommyo, does Santa smoke?”

Naturally I answered that question by consulting the reference text. Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem, The Night Before Christmas, is widely acknowledged with giving us the image of the white-bearded, red-clad, jolly old man that we know and love as Santa today. Courtesy of Wikisource, here’s Moore’s original description of Santa (emphasis mine):

“Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;”

Definitely a smoker. At least in those days.

Cover of Charles Santore's 2011 The Night Before Christmas.

Cover of Charles Santore’s 2011 The Night Before Christmas.

The Wikisource entry includes several variations of the poems published between 1823 and 1949. Although the names of Donder and Blitzen, who were called Dunder and Blixem in the original 1823 version, evolved over the years, the detail about the pipe remained constant. Still more recent editions of the poem, such as Charles Santore’s 2011 illustrated version of The Night Before Christmas, further simplify Donder’s name to Donner, but again, keep the detail of the pipe intact.

All signs point to Santa being a smoker. That is, until this year, when Canadian author Patricia McColl self-published a version of Clement Moore’s classic Christmas poem that edited out the bit about the pipe on the grounds that Santa needed to set a better example for the children.

Cover of Patricia McColl's smoke-free 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, which she is marketing as having been "edited by Santa for the benefit of children of the 21st century."

Cover of Patricia McColl’s smoke-free ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which she is marketing as having been “edited by Santa for the benefit of children of the 21st century.”

I have not read her version myself, but according to the New York Post, in addition to deleting the verses about the pipe, McColl hired illustrators Elena Almazova and Vitaly Shvarov to redraw Santa without the pipe and all that pesky smoke. From the New York Post article on the subject:

“No one can backtrack now,” McColl crowed to The Post. “Santa has stopped smoking, and 2012 is the year he quit, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Except, you know, read any of the dozens of other versions that employ Clement Moore’s original text. (Just saying.)

Pretty much everyone I’ve read on the topic appears to strenuously object to McColl snatching away Santa’s pipe, including the American Library Association. Instead of editing out the bits that offend our modern sensibilities, the American Library Association argues, our children are better served by hearing the original stories and learning about the time period in which they were written.

We here at Caterpickles whole-heartedly agree. It’s the approach we’ve adopted in reading The Great Brain series to The Five-Year-Old. And that has provoked far more interesting discussions than editing out the uncomfortable, culturally awkward, or simply hard-to-explain bits would have done.

So what did I tell The Five-Year-Old? Yes, Santa smokes and has for many many years.

The Five-Year-Old: “But doesn’t he know it’s bad for him?”

Victorian advertisement for Dr. Perrin's Cubeb Cigarettes, which were often used to treat colds, asthma, and (Image via Wikipedia)

Victorian advertisement for Dr. Perrin’s Cubeb Cigarettes, which were often used to treat colds, asthma, and hayfever. (Image via Wikipedia)

I expect so, now. But when he started smoking no one knew that. Back in those days, people smoked cubeb* cigarettes to treat colds, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. Now we know that smoking makes you more likely to develop respiratory illnesses in the first place.

We also know that once you start smoking, it’s really really hard to quit.

Which is why you should never start smoking at all.

See? That’s not so hard. So don’t worry about reading The Night Before Christmas as Clement Moore originally wrote it to your kids.

Merry Christmas from all of us at Caterpickles.

Related Links:

*A cubeb (also known as a tailed pepper or a Java pepper) is a type of pepper cultivated in Java and Sumatra for its fruit and essential oils. According to Wikipedia, cubeb is still used as a flavoring agent for cigarettes in the West.

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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