David Sedaris mixes the grotesque and the genuine in Holidays On Ice

David Sedaris mixes the grotesque and the genuine in Holidays On Ice

You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, the David Sedaris holiday story collection Holidays On Ice.

“I am a 33-year-old man applying for a job as an elf.”

It gets worse: He wants to be a full-time elf at Macy’s SantaLand, not an “evening and weekend” elf. The latter has more dignity; it’s just a means of picking up some extra money during the holidays. The former marks a person who has nothing else to save him from such a humiliating state. But in the early ’90s, before he became one of today’s most beloved authors and memoirists, David Sedaris had nothing else. Strangely enough, that low point was his ticket to fame and fortune.

Sedaris’ journal from his time as an elf at Macy’s became “SantaLand Diaries,” an essay he read for NPR’s Morning Edition in December of 1992, and that led to more work with public radio, which led to a book deal, and all the acclaim Sedaris has since enjoyed. It was also adapted for the stage in 1996—amazingly, Timothy Olyphant originated the role—and remains a staple of local theater companies around the country.

“SantaLand Diaries” anchors Holidays On Ice, a collection of Sedaris’ holiday-themed essays, both non-fiction and fiction. Although most of the stories are tied to Christmas, a few mine other holidays, such as Halloween and Easter. First published in 1997, the book has expanded over the years to include stories from Sedaris’ subsequent work, but “SantaLand” has always held the first spot in it. 

With good reason. Twenty years later, it remains hilarious and full of quotable lines, like one guy’s assessment of Sedaris’ elf costume: “You look so fucking stupid.” (Sedaris’ response: “I wanted to say that at least I get paid to look stupid, that he gives it away for free.”) Or the woman in charge of the costumes who pointed to a calendar and said, “Ladies, you know what this is. Use it. I have scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life.” Or how Sedaris learned to say in sign language, “Santa has a tumor in his head the size of an olive. Maybe it will go away tomorrow but I don’t think so.”

At that point in his career, Sedaris had a more acerbic style; “SantaLand Diaries” is a grotesque of the holiday season, where a wholesome trip to visit Santa Claus at Macy’s can end with a man calling Santa a faggot, “because he couldn’t take the time to recite ‘The Night Before Christmas’ to his child.” Speaking of grotesque, holiday letters get the same treatment in fictitious “Season’s Greetings To Our Friends And Family!!!” a darkly perky Christmas letter from the disturbed matriarch of an unraveling family, which includes this line: “Watching the baby’s body, small as a loaf of bread, as it was zipped into a heavy plastic bag—these images have nothing to do with the merriment of Christmas!” A snotty theater critic takes down a few elementary/middle-school Christmas plays in “Front Row Center With Thaddeus Bristol.” (“I will, no doubt, be taken to task for criticizing the work of children but, as any pathologist will agree, if there’s a cancer it’s best to treat it as early as possible.”)

By the time Sedaris published his first collection of non-fiction essays, Naked, in 1997, he’d become skilled at putting a heart underneath his acidic wit. That collection’s “Dinah, The Christmas Whore” also appears in Holidays On Ice. In it, Sedaris’ sister Lisa drags him to a run-down part of town to rescue a prostitute she knows from her job. They bring this woman back home, where Sedaris’ mom treats her compassionately and the many Sedaris children pepper her with questions. If anyone can pull some sentiment from the absurdity of a prostitute spending a day before Christmas with his family, it’s David Sedaris.

“Every gathering has its moment,” he writes. “As an adult, I distract myself by trying to identify it, dreading the inevitable downswing that is sure to follow. The guests will repeat themselves one too many times, or you’ll run out of dope or liquor and realize that it was all you ever had in common. At the time, though, I still believed that such a warm and heady feeling might last forever and that in embracing it fully, I might approximate the same wistful feeling adults found in their second round of drinks.”

The set dressing may be R-rated, but the sentiment is decidedly G: Those kinds of moments, the ones we try to sear into our minds and hold onto forever, are the goal of the holiday season—and it can be alienating when they don’t happen (or are replaced with something much more stressful). 

In his other books, Sedaris has made plain his devotion to his family. (Anxiety about how they’d be portrayed compelled him to stop a film adaptation of Me Talk Pretty One Day.) Holidays On Ice hints at it, as the theme of family runs strong through nearly all of its stories, even in the farcical “Christmas Means Giving,” about two wealthy rival families outdoing each other’s charity, or “Based Upon A True Story,” where a TV producer tries to turn a town against one of its own. (The brilliant “Six To Eight Black Men,” which explores Christmas traditions in other countries, doesn’t take up the theme, but is the funniest essay next to “SantaLand Diaries.”)

Holiday entertainment practically fetishizes togetherness, but the wizened know it can’t be forced. Sometimes a family can bond over a prostitute. “From this moment on, the phrase ‘Ho, ho, ho’ would take on a whole different meaning; and I, along with the rest of my family, could appreciate it in our own clannish way,” Sedaris writes in “Dinah.” It’s their version of the “Chinese turkey” from the end of A Christmas Story or the millions of other inside references families share. All around the world, new family lore is written this time of year. If only David Sedaris could chronicle all of it.

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