Book ‘Em: Elf Help.

Some presents just shouldn’t be unwrapped. As funny as David Sedaris‘s Holidays On Ice is, I can’t help feeling that way reading parts of it. The star section of the book is, of course, The Santaland Diaries, about Sedaris’s time working as an elf during Christmas at Macy’s. It’s not so much what goes on behind the scenes, the fact that he’s certain he failed his drug test, or the way, thanks to employee theft, “the store treats its employees the way one might treat a felon with a long criminal record”, or even the occasional abuse he gets from customers. No, for me the most disturbing thing is that Sedaris says he got the job as an elf because he’s short–and he’s just an inch shorter than I am. He does try to balance cynicism with good humor, although it’s obviously difficult at times, particularly when the employee training includes a lecture on how to keep elf costumes clean and the female elves are told they have to wear underwear. And there are times when Sedaris comes off a little more mean-spirited than necessary, such as when he describes a man he calls Santa Santa, who takes himself “a little too seriously”.

I asked him where he lives, Brooklyn or Manhattan, and he said, “Why, I live at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus!” I asked what he does the rest of the year and he said, “I make toys for all the children.”…Santa Santa sits and waves and hingles his bell sash when no one is there. He actually recited “The Night Before Christmas,” and it was just the two of us in the house, no children. Just us. What do you do with a nut like that?

Hey, as long as he’s not a danger to himself or to children or anyone else, wouldn’t you want a department store Santa like that? He’s better than, say, David Sedaris, who tells one misbehaving boy that Santa “no longer traffics in coal”, but will instead break into the houses of bad children and steal things.

The original edition of Holidays On Ice, published in 1997, had just five other stories, including the extremely bitter and dark but also funny Seasons Greetings to our Friends and Family!!! Although Sedaris tends to be a little too heavy-handed when writing fiction, it’s a wonderful Christmas story you can share with your family–if you’re The Addams Family. The collection also has the very touching Dinah The Christmas Whore. Yes, it really is a touching story. Sedaris tends to have mixed feelings about his family, but Dinah makes him look at them in a very positive way.

The expanded edition, published in 2008, adds six more stories, including Jesus Shaves. Originally published in Me Talk Pretty One Day, the main subject of Jesus Shaves is actually Easter, as Sedaris tries to explain the Easter Bunny to his psychopathic French teacher, while also trying to understand the French Easter tradition of a giant chocolate bell that flies in from Rome. It also includes Let It Snow, originally published in Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, about a snowy day when young David and all his siblings get locked out of the house by their mother. They decide their mother will be sorry if one of them is killed by a car, so they try to make the youngest lie down in the street.

The expanded edition also includes what I think is Sedaris’s funniest and best essay of them all, Six To Eight Black Men. Sedaris considers the traditions of other countries, focusing on the Netherlands where Santa pretends to kick bad children and is accompanied not by elves but by six to eight black men–former slaves but now simply assistants. As Sedaris says, ” As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution–so what’s not to love about being Dutch?” He’s got a good point. Even though the Dutch Santa might pretend to kick you and be accompanied by six to eight assistants, he’s not as frightening as some of the characters you’ll meet at Macy’s.

Here’s a selection from Six To Eight Black Men.

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