David Sedaris Christmas Essay

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For Julia and Jim, my favorite David Sedaris fans

My sister, Julia, is one of David Sedaris’s biggest fans. She and my husband, Jim, love giggling together over favorite passages from Sedaris’s droll radio essays.

While Sedaris is an accomplished writer, it is in his oral delivery of his essays – his readings – that he really makes his mark. Sure, you can recite a favorite line or try to imitate him doing “Away in a Manger” as Billie Holiday, but really, why try? Only David Sedaris can really do David Sedaris.

Sedaris’s breakout came when he recorded “The Santaland Diaries” for NPR’s Morning Edition in December 1992, his debut for national public radio. When the essay was broadcast, more people requested a tape of it than any Morning Edition story up to that time (except for the death of beloved NPR commentator Red Barber.)

Small in stature, Sedaris recalls landing a gig (if you can call it that) as Crumpet the Elf in Macy’s Santaland. He played Crumpet for two seasons at the Macy’s store in New York’s Herald Square. If you are familiar with Sedaris’s work, you know that this bizarre set-up – small gay man meets American capitalist Christmas extravaganza – is the perfect vehicle for Sedaris’s storytelling.

How did Sedaris make it to the big time? Radio host Ira Glass discovered him in a Chicago club where Sedaris was reading from his diary. Glass invited Sedaris to appear on his weekly local program, The Wild Room. “I owe everything to Ira,” says Sedaris. “My life just changed completely, like someone waved a magic wand.” Since his big break on NPR, Sedaris has been a frequent contributor to Glass’s nationally distributed public radio program, This American Life.

Are Sedaris’s essays true? Alexander S. Heard – in an article for The New Republicwent to the trouble of fact-checking some of the essays and found holes (sometimes gaping holes) in Sedaris’s tales. He did work at Macy’s Santaland, and Bob Rutan, a Macy’s executive, recalls him as “an outstanding elf.” But given the controversy surrounding the factuality of the essays, NPR now clearly labels “The Santaland Diaries” – a perennial holiday favorite – as fiction. And Sedaris himself in a note in his 2009 book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, acknowledged that his tales are “realish.” (For more on the controversy over the “truth” behind Sedaris’s essays, check out this Washington Post article.)

Ready to explore more of Sedaris’s work? Check out his 1994 collection, Barrel Fever, or his 1997 collection, Holidays on Ice, both of which include “The Santaland Diaries.” Other volumes include: Naked(1998), Me Talk Pretty One Day(2001), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim(2005), and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls(2014). These books are also available as audio recordings – and if you want the full David Sedaris experience, I recommend investing in The Ultimate David Sedaris Box Set.

To learn more, visit Sedaris’s official website – and if you want to stay up to date on all things David Sedaris, you can follow him on Facebook or sign up for his newsletter. You can also listen to and read excerpts from a 2013 Terry Gross interview with Sedaris on Fresh Air.

This holiday season revisit David Sedaris’s “The Santaland Diaries” – or if you’ve never heard it before, sit back, buckle up, and get ready for some rip-roaring laughter.

Image Credit: David Sedaris behind the microphone at WBUR in Boston, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David_Sedaris_(June_2008).jpg.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It would not be the holiday season without Crumpet the Elf.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. David Sedaris first wrote about Crumpet in his fanciful "Santaland Diaries." He was a little-known writer when his story was first broadcast on MORNING EDITION. The broadcast launched a career as a best-selling writer.

INSKEEP: And it became a holiday tradition. So here we bring you the 25th anniversary broadcast of David Sedaris as Crumpet the Elf.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID SEDARIS: (As Crumpet the Elf, reading) I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T AND THE M.G.'S' "MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY")

SEDARIS: (As Crumpet the Elf, reading) I have spent the last several days sitting in a crowded, windowless Macy's classroom undergoing the first phases of elf training. You can be an entrance elf, a water cooler elf, a bridge elf, train elf, maze elf, island elf, magic window elf, usher elf, cash register elf or exit elf. We were given a demonstration of various positions and action, acted out by returning elves who were so onstage and goofy that it made me a little sick to my stomach. I don't know that I can look anyone in the eye and exclaim, oh, my goodness, I think I see Santa, or can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish? Everything these elves say seems to have an exclamation point on the end of it. It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. It embarrasses me to hear people talk this way. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf.

Twenty-two thousand people came to see Santa today, and not all of them were well-behaved. Today, I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums. The back hallway was jammed with people. There was a line for Santa and a line for the women's bathroom. And one woman, after asking me a thousand questions already, asked which is the line for the women's bathroom? And I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. And she said, I'm going to have you fired. I had two people say that to me today - I'm going to have you fired. Go ahead, be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn't get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? I'm going to have you fired. And I want to lean over and say, I'm going to have you killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T AND THE M.G.'S' "MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY")

SEDARIS: (As Crumpet the Elf, reading) The overall cutest elf is a fella from Queens named Ritchie (ph). His elf name is Snowball and he tends to ham it up with the children, sometimes tumbling down the path to Santa's house. I generally gag when elves get that cute, but Snowball is hands-down adorable. You want to put him in your pocket. Yesterday, Snowball and I worked as Santa elves and I got excited when he started saying things like, I'd follow you to Santa's house any day, Crumpet. It made me dizzy, this flirtation. By mid-afternoon I was running into walls. By late afternoon, Snowball had cooled down. By the end of our shift, we were in the bathroom changing our clothes, and all of a sudden, we were surrounded by five Santas and three other elves. All of them were guys that Snowball had been flirting with. Snowball just leads elves on, elves and Santas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T AND THE M.G.'S' "MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY")

SEDARIS: (As Crumpet the Elf, reading) This morning, I worked as an exit elf, telling people in a loud voice, this way out of Santaland. A woman was standing at one of the cash registers paying for her pictures while her son lay beneath her kicking and heaving, having a tantrum. The woman said, Riley (ph), if you don't start behaving yourself, Santa's not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for. The child said, he is too going to bring me toys, liar. He already told me. The woman grabbed my arm and said, you there, elf, tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately then Santa's going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.

I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. The woman got a worried look on her face and said, all right, that's enough. I said he's going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing. The mother said, no, that's enough, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "O TANNENBAUM")

SEDARIS: (As Crumpet the Elf, reading) This afternoon, I was stuck being photo elf for Santa Santa. Santa Santa has an elaborate little act for the children. He'll talk to them and give a hearty chuckle and ring his bells and then he asks them to name their favorite Christmas carol. Santa then asks if they'll sing it for him. The children are shy and don't want to sing out loud, so Santa Santa says, oh, little elf, little elf, help young Brenda (ph) here sing that favorite carol of hers.

Late in the afternoon, a child said she didn't know what her favorite Christmas carol was. Santa Santa suggested "Away In A Manger." The girl agreed to it but didn't want to sing because she didn't know the words. Santa Santa said, oh, little elf, little elf, come sing "Away In The Manger" for us. It didn't seem fair that I should have to solo, so I sang it the way Billie Holiday might have sang if she'd put out a Christmas album.

(Singing) Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.

Santa Santa did not allow me to finish.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "O TANNENBAUM")

SEDARIS: (As Crumpet the Elf, reading) This evening, I was sent to be a photo elf. Once a child starts crying, it's all over. The parents had planned to send these pictures as cards or store them away until the child is grown and can lie, claiming to remember the experience. Tonight, I saw a woman slap and shake her crying child. She yelled, Rachel (ph), get on that man's lap and smile, or I'll give you something to cry about. Then she sat Rachel on Santa's lap and I took the picture, which supposedly means on paper that everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be, that everything is snowy and wonderful. It's not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything but the parent's idea of a world they cannot make work for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "O TANNENBAUM")

INSKEEP: Brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it? Tears of laughter perhaps. David Sedaris reading from his essay, the "Santaland Diaries," which was first heard on this program 25 years ago.

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