‘Cajun Night Before Christmas’: The story behind the storybook
While James Rice was traveling around the country in 1973, trying to find a publisher for his children’s illustrations, the Bergeron Plymouth company of New Orleans released an original Christmas advertisement: a Cajun take on Clement Moore’s popular Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but written in a South Louisiana patois. Pelican Publishing’s Milburn Calhoun heard the re-interpretation — penned by J.B. Kling Jr., writing as “Trosclair,” a Cajun spokesman for Bergeron Plymouth in its radio ads — and had to get it published. He enlisted Rice to provide the colorful illustrations, including the sight of St. Nick on a skiff drawn by eight magic alligators, and “Cajun Night Before Christmas” was born.
Generations have grown up with Kling/Trosclair’s charming tale, which is nearing its 45th year of publication. It’s since become tradition to read the story all over South Louisiana during the holiday season, from Celebration in the Oaks to the Algiers Bonfire. In 2015, LSU placekicker Colby Delhoussaye even read “Cajun Night Before Christmas” to members of his team.
- The narrator in “Cajun Night Before Christmas” spies St. Nick with his flying skiff and eight flying alligators. Historically, though, only some inhabitants of Louisiana have referred to Santa Claus as St. Nick. For the people of German decent he was Kris Kringle or St. Nick, while the descendants of French settlers called him Papa Noel. Cajuns celebrated a visit by a woman they called La Christianne.
- Forget Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Blitzen. St. Nick’s alligators are named Gaston, Tiboy, Pierr, Alcee, Ninette, Suzette, Celeste and Renee.
People from New Orleans may most commonly remember the tale from another favorite Christmas tradition. The story is a part of one of the most popular light displays at Celebration in the Oaks in City Park. As visitors watch the light-up versions of St. Nick and his gators, they can listen to the classic recording by radio personality Tommy Joe Breaux.
- “Cajun Night Before Christmas” was the first children’s book from Pelican Publishing, but it wasn’t the last. With hundreds of thousands of copies in print, it inspired 18 more interpretations of the classic poem, from the “Alaska Night Before Christmas” to the “Texas Night Before Christmas,” as well as the newest publication, an “Artist’s Night Before Christmas.” It has consequently helped make the children’s segment the largest at Pelican.
- In addition to capturing the attention of Pelican Publishing, the story also won a Clio Award from the Academy of Television and Radio Advertising.
- Originally from Texas, James Rice is considered one of the South’s most prominent illustrators of children’s books. “Cajun Night Before Christmas” was his first published book, and he went on to produce 60 other children’s books. During his lifetime, Rice won awards from Printer Industries of America and the Children’s Book Council. He died in 2004.
- Although Clement Moore is credited as original author of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (which is more commonly known by its first line: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), the writer Washington Irving is credited with coming up with the idea of a flying Santa Claus. In writing his satirical book, “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,” Irving needed a way for Santa Claus to travel all over the world in one night. Thus the flying sleigh.
- The original recording of “Cajun Night Before Christmas” sold by Pelican was read by Coleen Salley, an author and longtime professor at the University of New Orleans. Another popular reading of the tale is by Larry Ray.
It may have started with an advertisement, but the birth of “Cajun Night Before Christmas” made a Christmas classic into Louisiana’s own. For kids in South Louisiana, reindeer, a sleigh and even snow are foreign. But trade those elements for things a bit more familiar — a skiff, eight alligators, the bayou — and add a dash of Cajun magic, and you’ve got a story that inspires true wonder in kids (and a few adults) all over the Bayou State.