"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 laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!"
-- Clement Clarke Moore's description of Santa Claus, circa 1823, in the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas
This year, Santa gave up the pipe-smoking.
In a newly edited version of the poem that has largely been attributed as providing the classic image of Santa Claus, the "jolly old elf" goes smoke-free. Well-meaning Canadian publisher and anti-smoking advocate Pamela McColl excised the line herself, although the cover of the bowdlerized book gives credit elsewhere: "Edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of children of the 21st century."
So is the "round belly" the next target for health advocates?
The story has made the rounds among people predictably concerned about issues of censorship and political correctness. ("But Santa needs his vice to unwind," pleaded Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.)
But the truth is that Santa has become the object of far more radical revisionism in contemporary movies.
The most recent example is the tall, brawny Slavic Santa (who apparently goes by the code-name "North") in Dreamworks Animation's Rise of the Guardians. Voiced by Alec Baldwin (a funny man, but not the kind of guy you would ever consider "jolly"), this Santa is formidable and downright macho, with "Naughty" tattooed on one forearm and "Nice" tattooed on the other.
Put yourself on alert when a Christmas movie pays discreet homage to the classic 1955 thriller Night of the Hunter and its chillingly psychotic villain Robert Mitchum as a murderous preacher with the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on his knuckles.
The movie posits Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman as a loose affiliation of heroes who, in addition to gifting kids with presents, eggs, coins and sweet dreams, protect them from dark forces, represented by a malevolent Boogey Man who goes by the name Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law in the Hollywood tradition of English-accented villainy).
The resulting conflict sees Santa picking up a pair of swords at one point, to cut a swath through Pitch's herd of wispy nightmare horses.
It's all very visually impressive, but you have to wonder if the filmmakers didn't give their collective heads a shake at the notion of putting a warrior Santa out there.
It raises the question: Has Hollywood now reached the point where even Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have to kick ass to be considered worthwhile heroes?
Last year's Christmas release Arthur Christmas, newly released on DVD, took even greater liberties with Santa by presenting a lineage of three generations of Clauses, including a crotchety old retired geezer; a semi-senile old stick who barely functions as the current Santa (but selfishly insists on staying with the job); and most distressingly, Santa's son Steve, an ambitious, beefy technocrat who refuses to get bent out of shape just because a single delivery to a little girl didn't get to its destination.
Arthur, the film's hero, looks nothing like the typical Santa -- he's a clumsy adolescent stringbean -- but he does spend most of the movie proving he's got the right benevolent stuff to be in charge of the family business.
Even so, the movie from Aardman Animation has an off-putting militaristic streak when it comes to showing how Santa goes about the formidable task of getting presents to every boy and girl in the world. The secret: an aircraft the size of the Close Encounters mothership hovers over an entire city and thousands of elves rappel down cables to deliver their goods. Santa, in fact, is more a figurehead than an active participant.
In contrast, Rise of the Guardian's Santa employs magic snowglobes that create convenient wormholes all over the globe.
When it comes to Santa's modus operandi, one could probably trace this distressing literalism to Tim Allen's Santa Clause trilogy, which took unnecessary pains to explain how Santa could surreptitiously gain entrance to billions of houses in a single night. One wishes those movies would follow the credo: "Never complain, never explain." Allen's Santa did plenty of both.
If you have to choose a contemporary movie Santa to present to the kids, you might want go with the 2003 movie Elf. Will Ferrell, as a human raised as one of Santa's elves, is centre stage, but the movie does have a reassuringly traditional Santa Claus in Ed Asner,
He's fat. He's kind. He's got the beard and the red suit. Heck, we'd forgive him if he even took the occasional puff every once in a while.