Grace at SantaLand: Why David Sedaris Is My Favorite Advent Reading

This one was written by Jonathan Sanchez. It’s a bit of a weird choice for […]

Guest Contributor / 12.12.19

This one was written by Jonathan Sanchez.

It’s a bit of a weird choice for an Advent meditation, I’ll admit–the last entry of “SantaLand Diaries” by David Sedaris. Honestly, though, I’ve read those two pages so many times, I know them by heart.

In the great Christmas stories, there’s a lot of dark stuff. Scrooge says let the poor die “and decrease the surplus population.” George Bailey nearly jumps off a bridge. The Grinch robs a whole town.

But Sedaris’s snarky memoir of being a Macy’s elf doesn’t end with hand-holding and caroling. It ends with his manager screaming profanities and threatening violence. On Christmas Eve.

Even so, “SantaLand” is still a story of transformation by grace, no less than A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a story that helps me meditate on the birth of Christ, because maybe the nativity story, at least how we usually tell it, is a little too nice to do the job.

Being a Macy’s elf was not exactly Sedaris’ New York dream job. His earlier SantaLand entries are mostly one big eye-roll. He mocks the clunky actors in a training video about shoplifting. After getting ASL lessons in order to assist deaf children, he has a friend teach him how to sign “Santa has a tumor in his head.” He shows us elves who hit on married women, parents who sting Santa’s eyes with hairspray.

He keeps his distance. He’s not really a Macy’s elf — just playing along for the paycheck and for the material. A modern-day antihero, he cuts through the treacle to show how horrible Christmas is now, how far away we’ve gone from the peace of the manger.

And then comes Christmas Eve, a day that’s usually quiet but turns out to be, as he says, “the day a week of training was meant to prepare us for.”

A fistfight breaks out between two mothers. Parents leave dirty diapers on the floor. A man calls Santa a slur because he won’t recite “The Night Before Christmas.” One woman suffers “a severe, crowd-related anxiety attack: falling to the floor and groping for breath, her arms moving as though she were fighting off bats.”

Diapers, mothers, desperate young families — this modern-day Christmas Eve is juxtaposed with the original one in Bethlehem.

But as for that “real” version — when you think about Luke’s gospel and “no room at the inn,” how do you picture that scene in your head? If you’re like me, it’s a little roadside tavern. Sheep graze in nearby pastures. Joseph and Mary pull up on their donkey. The innkeeper answers the door, holding up his lamp. He takes pity on the young couple and points to the barn.

But the inn was FULL. Full of real people who had no idea it was Christmas. It could have been a rowdy scene. People forced to travel by a distant emperor. Gougers trying to make a buck off travelers. Booze peddlers. Sex workers. No help for a pregnant teenager.

Panic attacks? Brawling moms? Why not. You won’t see them in any creches, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

If the manger foreshadows the crucifixion, the indifference at the inn reminds us that these are — we are — the same people who will crucify Jesus. But it’s not about the good people and the bad people, it’s about us — you, me — how do we handle advent? Some years I’m a shepherd or Magi, some years I’m a selfish jerk. More likely I lurch from one to the other each December day.

So, in the face of this capitalist, grotesque perversion of the “real” Christmas, what happens to David Sedaris a.k.a. Crumpet, a.k.a Blisters the Elf? Who is he on Christmas Eve, wearing green velvet knickers amidst the worst of humanity, short-staffed, his lunch break cut?

“Many elves complained bitterly, but the rest of us found ourselves in the moment we had all been waiting for…It was time to be a trouper, and I surrendered completely.”

There are moments in the earlier diary entries where we can see hints of grace and transformation peeking through, but never any indication that Sedaris was waiting for something. That’s because he didn’t know he was waiting for it. 

“My Santa and I had them on the lap, off the lap in forty-five seconds flat. We were an efficient machine, surrounded by chaos. Quitting time came and went for the both of us and we paid it no mind.”

A four-year old sits on Santa’s lap and sees more than just a toy vending machine. She is held, physically, by a divine, immortal being who lives at the top of the earth and embodies generosity and kindness. A literal Saint. On his last day, Sedaris finally becomes a willing part of that sacrament.

He works as late as he can without missing his plane to Raleigh. When he reports to his manager, she doesn’t say a word to him. She is screaming at a customer.

“She was in fact, calling this customer a bitch. I touched her arm and said ‘I have to go now.’ She laid her hand on my shoulder, squeezed it gently and continued her conversation, saying, ‘Don’t tell the store president I called you a bitch, tell him I called you a f****** bitch, because that’s exactly what you are. Now get out of my sight before I do something we both regret.’”

When I was nine years old, I played the angel Gabriel in the church pageant. I had to lay my hand on the shoulder of the older girl playing Mary and say “Do not be afraid.” I still remember it, as you see. A laying-on of hands is a powerful thing — we feel both the physical and spiritual weight of the hand, something far greater than words. The Holidays is the only time when you hug your weird racist uncle, even if only as you arrive and leave.

What I love about “SantaLand Diaries” is it means not to mock Christmas, with its crude references to affairs and Brooklyn husbands asking Santa for larger-breasted wives. But rather it finds grace amidst the crudeness.

And there’s a lot of crud in Christmas: the cruddy way you feel from drinking too much, eating too much. The stress of finding gifts. And if you’re in retail like me, there’s the stress of making your whole year profitable.

But look at the first Christmas. There was poverty and excessive gift-giving. Who brings gold to a poor carpenter’s son? There was overcrowding, there was scandal, there was a baby born in a barn amidst smelly livestock.

And there was travel. We like to think everyone used to live in the same happy towns and we didn’t have to deal with Christmas in Charlotte and Thanksgiving in Orlando and whose sister-in-law is selfishly skipping out. The first Christmas was an out-of-town Christmas.

Christmas isn’t about ignoring the world to seek the divine. It’s the opposite, it’s the divine coming into our crude world.

When I find that I can’t get in the “spirit of Christmas” and blame the modern world and my obsession with the crucial Fourth Quarter Sales, I’m looking backwards to an idealized time as a child, when money wasn’t an issue. I’m looking right over the Christmas present in the world in front of me. Like that Macy’s manager, I have to gently hold the ones I love — and not-so-gently say to the ghosts of the past and worries of the future:

“Now get out of my sight before I do something we both regret.”

Jonathan Sanchez is the owner of Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC, and the director of YALLFest young adult book festival.