This year, Santa’s on the naughty list.
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A new version of the ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas — the holiday poem that’s long been a cultural staple — features a Santa Claus whose smoking habits are more Michael Bloomberg than Mad Men.
Canadian author Pamela McColl has censored the poem, removing two verses about Santa: “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth/and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.” The book’s cover is unapologetic, reading “Edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of children of the 21st century.”.
No doubt that omission will cut down on the national epidemic of kindergartners sneaking a smoke under the playground slide. Never mind that it’s teens, not young kids, at risk of trying a cigarette: Over four out of five adult smokers were already smokers before 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most teens, it’s safe to assume, aren’t looking at a tubby, costumed senior citizen as the epitome of cool. However, what McColl’s revisions will cause is a dumbing down of children’s moral intelligence. The point of stories — even children’s stories, which appropriately tend to be simpler and less complex than young adult and adult fiction — isn’t to present completely sanitized scenarios, where everyone is either completely good or entirely evil.
If that was the case, beloved childhood characters as diverse as Harry Potter (who sometimes uses an invisibility cloak when breaking rules) to Madeline (the little French heroine who recklessly walks — and falls off — a high bridge ledge) should also face censorship.
It’s important for children to realize that even good people have flaws. (And let’s put smoking in perspective: no, it’s not healthy, but nor is eating excessive junk food or rarely exercising.) Most kids who have struggled to really leave the playground right when Daddy said to, or failed to refrain from eating that gingerbread cookie left on the dining room table that Mommy said was for after dinner, have at least some awareness of the tension between what they want and what they should do.
That’s a vital step in moral development. Exposing them to characters who share the same interior tension is crucial to encouraging children to realize they aren’t alone and they can work at becoming better. Fictional characters can also prepare small kids to understand the moral complexities of other people, whether it’s their peer who occasionally says a mean thing, but is also the first to share her toys, or a relative who always uses that very, very bad word but is also quick to volunteer to join in a game of tag with antsy kids.
Trust me: Smoking Santa won’t be the first — or the last — figure kids encounter who isn’t “practically perfect in every way,” Mary Poppins-style. Furthermore, the original ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas — penned almost 200 years ago — gives kids an important historical insight: namely, that every generation has weaknesses they don’t notice, but successive generations do. Recognizing that provides kids with a vital humility to incorporate in their understanding of their own generation’s mores.
Only a real Grinch would censor a book and deprive kids of the wonderful knowledge of human beings the best fiction gives.
Katrina Trinko writes for National Review Online and is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
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