The poem, originally written by Clement Moore in 1823, has been credited with creating the modern-day image of Santa Claus.
But the edited version by a Canadian author – which will be promoted in Scotland next year – cuts out lines which refer to Santa Claus being shrouded in smoke with a pipe between his teeth. An illustrator has also produced a series of images to go with the edited poem, none of which show Father Christmas holding a pipe.
The new version, published in English, Spanish and French, claims the poem has been “edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of children of the 21st century” but it has been attacked on both sides of the Atlantic for censoring the original author’s vision.
The author, Pamela McColl, said she had decided to take the lines out of the famous poem because she was concerned children might be influenced by the image of a smoking Santa.
“I edited this poem as studies out of the United States in the 1990s showed that the depiction of cartoon characters smoking influences young children ages 3-7 towards tobacco products,” she said.
“Santa Claus is still the most influential character for children and can outsell even Ronald McDonald. I think these edits outweigh other considerations. If this text is to survive another 200 years it needs to modernise and reflect today’s realities.”
The lines of the poem she extracted read: “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth/and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath”.
McColl said she didn’t think that taking the lines out detracted from the poem in any way. “Most people I have spoken to say they wouldn’t have noticed but then there are the critics and they have noticed big time and claim it is censorship,” she said. “I disagree with that opinion as I am not banning older versions, just suggesting that young children are better served by a smoke-free ‘Twas the night’.”
McColl, whose grandparents are Scottish, plans to visit Scotland in February to promote the book. “I will visit Scottish libraries, smoking prevention agencies and public health associations,” she said. “I will also be meeting with distributors and booksellers.”
However, McColl’s version of the poem has been met with criticism. Colin Waters, of the Scottish Poetry Library, said it was changing the original sentiment of the poem.
“There’s a word for this sort of thing and it’s bowdlerising,” he said. “In the 19th-century Tom Bowdler erased parts of Shakespeare’s plays that he judged didn’t fit the spirit of his age. In Bowdler’s day it was curses; today, smoking. Bowdler’s changes didn’t stick and I suspect the changes to Twas the Night Before Christmas won’t either.”
Simon Clark, director of the pro-smoking pressure group Forest, branded the move “pathetic”. He said: “What we’re talking about at the end of the day is a fantasy character. The idea that a poem that features Santa smoking a pipe is going to encourage children to start smoking is preposterous.”
The move has also come under fire in the US, where the American Library Association has condemned the new version.
“So much of censorship is motivated on the grounds that we’re protecting children from concepts someone finds distasteful,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
“But there are many assumptions behind that — that one point is the correct viewpoint, that all parents buy into the same ideas. The bottom line is we’re denying access to the author’s original voice, denying the opportunity for the author’s voice to be heard.”
Although Moore is long believed to have been the author of the poem, it has been claimed at various stages that it was actually written by Henry Livingston, an American of Scots descent living in New York at the time. Academics have pointed to the phraseology of the poem, which fits Livingston’s style more than Moore’s, as well as the fact that Moore originally disavowed the poem. Moore was also adamantly anti-smoking, perhaps making it unlikely that he would have added the controversial lines in the first place.
It is not the first time beloved children’s classics have been adapted to take consideration of modern day sensibilities. Last year a new US edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removed all 200 mentions of the n-word, while some of Enid Blyton’s books have also been censored in order to make them more palatable to 21st century readers.
In 2005 HarperCollins reissued a smoke-less edition of the children’s classic Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, in which it digitally altered a picture of the book’s illustrator Clement Hurd featured on the book jacket in order to remove a cigarette from his hand.