I’m not sure when coffee table books became a thing, but they are. They are a weird thing. Books that are mostly for decoration, but can provide a little light reading if your guests get bored or when you leave them alone to go pee out those last 12 cups of coffee. Perhaps Kramer’s coffee table book about coffee tables could shed some light on the history of this strange phenomenon, but I do not have a copy.
I want to share with you my two favorite Christmas coffee table books. One of which I grew up with, and the other was a recent discovery (within the last ten years or so).
The one that I grew up with, is the one I want to write about today. The other one can wait, but my love for this book will not languish another day without being shared with the world.
“Cajun Night Before Christmas” was published in 1973, the first of what was to become a “Night Before Christmas” franchise, with hits like “Texas Night Before Christmas” and “Gullah Night Before Christmas” following in its wake.
Penned by the clandestinely named “Trosclair”, which I think is just a pseudonym for the illustrator James Rice and which I thought was hilarious as a kid because my piano teacher’s name was Mrs. Trosclair, “Cajun Night Before Christmas” is a must-read for all elementary school teachers along the Gulf Coast.
Growing up on the Delta, the locations and language of the book were very familiar to me, as a kid. In fact, I preferred this version to the original and just assumed it was a huge hit with other kids, everywhere. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I came to the realization that most people probably haven’t heard of this book.
Speaking of the language, it is written in a Cajun dialect, with a smattering of French throughout. This means that no one can properly read it without hearing the way that a lot of Cajuns speak. However, it takes someone with the accent to read it before you get a lot of the humor. Maybe check out this video, if you want to hear it read aloud.
That may be the only line that is lifted directly from the source text. The rest, including a lot of major plot points, is changed to fit the regional culture.
For instance, Santa is pulled in a skiff through the bayou, by a team of alligators.
And instead of being in red velvet and white fur, he is wearing a muskrat suit and rubber boots (Bayou Reeboks, in local parlance). Now, personally, I’ve never seen anyone wearing muskrat fur, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Maybe muskrat fur was popular in Cajun country in the early 70’s. Or maybe Santa, or “Saint Nicklus”, is immortal and just prefers the fashions of yesteryear. If he was gonna wear some form of rodent these days around here, it’d probably be nutria.
I also think this is a good time to point out how awesome the illustrations are in this book. Every line is meticulously drawn, with great care taken with the coloring. There’s just so much detail in every page, that I can only imagine how long it took Trosclair to write and illustrate this classic.
I mean, just look at that double page spread, as the gators pull ol’ Santy up a cypress tree and into the sky! I love it!
If you pick up the book, you’ll learn that every one of the gators has a suitably coonass name: like Gaston and Alceé. I wonder what the other gators think of these guys. Maybe working for Santa is a sweet gig for them. Or maybe the other gators look at them as sellouts. I bet Santa feeds them all the nutria they can eat. Perhaps even takes them to the nutria cookoff.
I also wonder where St. Nicklus lives, exactly. I picture him possibly living deep in the swamp, and if you are poling through the blue cypress trees one day, dodging giant mosquitos and moccasins, his home may just appear before you, up on piers and covered in Spanish moss. I bet he eats a lot of frog legs.
This book really should be read aloud at your next family Christmas gathering. It’s become a genuine classic here, and is meant to be enjoyed by a crowd. Just loosen up your tongue and give it a try! In fact, it may be more funny when heard from someone far removed from the region.
The success of “Cajun Night Before Christmas” pretty much bankrolled its publisher, Pelican Press, based out of Gretna, Louisiana, and helped make them “the largest independent trade book publisher in the South.” There’s even a coloring book version, which I hear is big with the “hipster” crowd. And 4-year-olds.