Cover Story: Travelin' Man

A new take on "The Night Before Christmas" makes Santa a Cajun, a Texan, a cowboy, a teacher ...

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Santa's one man who sure gets around. He doesn't have an elf in every port, though. He's a one-woman type of guy. And who could blame him? Mrs. Claus' cookies could keep any red-blooded heterosexual male (or robust lesbian) satisfied.

But Santa does change transportation more often than a Victoria Secret's fashion model changes her bra.

Sure, we all know Santa's standard mode of travel: the sleigh, the flying reindeer, the nuclear-reactive Rudolph. But every once in a while St. Nick likes to take his wilder, kinkier side out for a spin.

Sometimes he harnesses up Gaston, Pierre and his six other alligators for a ride aboard his skiff. Other times he hops in his rig and just keeps on truckin'.

Illustrator James Rice has, for almost 30 years, had the task of coloring the big man's adventures through a sea of cultures. It all began with Cajun Night Before Christmas, originally published in 1973 and now on its 20th printing.

"Several Cajuns claimed to have written it," Rice says of the wickedly funny parody deeply drenched in the dialect of the area. "It's a pretty popular little poem."

(Note to self: Mom deserves serious tongue-lashing for not introducing this into her baby boy's life. It's a treasure along the lines of Everyone Poops, another classic that Mom somehow neglected. With such a deprived literature collection, it's a wonder I was ever inspired to become a writer.)

Rice was inspired by art long before his career as an illustrator took off, having served as a professor in the field at a southeastern Louisiana college.

"(The publishers) called and asked me if I could draw alligators," Rice says, his Texas drawl thicker than a triple-decker turkey sandwich. "I said sure. They didn't ask me if I had drawn alligators before."

As it turns out, Rice wasn't just blowing smoke up the publisher's buttocks. He really could draw alligators. The result launched a collection of books, dubbed "The Night Before Christmas" series, as well as a new direction in life for Rice as an illustrator (and occasional author) of children's books.

"I don't have to work for a living," he says. "I just get to do the fun stuff."

The fun stuff for Rice includes his latest creation, The Teachers' Night Before Christmas, written by Steven L. Layne. This time out, Santa dons suit and tie and climbs behind the wheel of his flying yellow school bus, which for my money is the coolest invention since the Sit 'N' Spin.

Along the way, Rice has penned and inked Cowboy Night Before Christmas and Texas Night Before Christmas and teamed up with author David Davis on Trucker's Night Before Christmas and Redneck Night Before Christmas. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Redneck Night Before Christmas.

It's all meant as good-natured fun.

"I try to keep my humor in all of them," explains Rice, a self-professed redneck. "I think the humor works for them. I think that might be why they're doing so well. When you're writing about yourself, you can laugh at yourself. I think it comes through. I don't think I make fun of anybody else. I hope that's the way it comes across. I never try to make light of anyone else's situation."

Fellow Texan Davis, on the other hand, didn't mind skewering others. He worked as a political cartoonist.

"I was the kind of kid who was always out in the hall in grammar school," Davis says. "You know, drawing the teachers or writing stuff that they didn't like. I always wrote satire and humor. I didn't know what it was then. I just knew it would get me swads at school. I was on the dean's list, but it was the wrong list."

Oh, yes. Swads. In this part of the country, we call them swats or corporal punishment or Friday night fun with our betrothed.

And more fun is to be had. Not sexually speaking, mind you, unless Larry Flynt wants to try his hand at The Dominatrix' Night Before Christmas. ("Twas the Night Before Christmas/And all the slaves were secured/As the dominatrix tested/How much pain each could endure.")

Even though Davis and Rice feel a lot more miles can be traveled in "The Night Before Christmas" series, I don't think that includes Santa in bondage gear. But who knows? Mrs. Claus might have other ideas.

JAMES RICE AND DAVID DAVIS will discuss "The Night Before Christmas" series at 3 p.m. Thursday at The Blue Marble in Fort Thomas, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble in Kenwood and at 7 p.m. Friday at Books & Co. in Dayton.

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