Book Review: ‘The Santaland Diaries’ by David Sedaris – Perfect Festive Skewering

‘Tis the season to be a grinch!

Real talk: I love Christmas. But I love it in a quiet, unobtrusive way that often makes people think I’m un-festive. I don’t drop and roll in a puddle of glitter and sequins every time I go out, the idea of Christmas shopping on Oxford Street makes me break out in a cold sweat, and there is not a tinsel garland to be seen in our house.

Despite being so thoroughly un-festooned, I love a great many things about Christmas. I love Christmas films, the joy of rewatching them for the eightieth time and quoting along; laughing as the Kevin McAllitster outfoxes the Wet Bandits yet again, or enjoying that most peculiar festive delight: the bit in ‘Gremlins’ where they put one of the little monsters in the blender.

I love Christmas markets, drinking mulled wine in sub-zero temperatures and piling the sofa with blankets after the sun goes down at three o’clock. Baking with piles of cinnamon and ginger and making the whole house smell of warmth.

Most of all, I love going home and doing all our usual ‘Christmas prep’ – picking up the pork pie from our local farm shop, putting the decorations my Mum has saved for us on the Christmas tree, snuggling up as a family to watch the latest BBC special.

This year is extra special because we have my brand new brother in law joining us for the first time! Poor him, he won’t know what’s hit him. Like most families we have lots of very strange traditions that make sense only to us, but he’s married in now, so must be initiated this year. Hopefully he doesn’t think we’re too nuts.

Now, onto the book!

Christmas for cynical people

If you are one of those people that puts up the tree on November 6th, has visited Santa in five different pop-up Grottos and owns more than one Christmas jumper, ‘The Santaland Diaries’ is unlikely to be for you.

My first ever foray into the writings of David Sedaris informed by many great reviews of his comic, satirical writing. In this book, he tells six stories of Christmas in his unique, darkly funny way.

The first, which takes up most of the book, is the titular story which tells of Sedaris’s real-life experience working as a Christmas Elf at Macy’s department store in New York.

The others are fictional and always poke at some Christmas tradition with a great big satirical skewer.

For example, we have the story of the neighbours who compete so much over everything at Christmas – who gives the best gift, who has the most money – that the appearance of a homeless person causes them to compete against each other in giving all of their stuff away with disasterous results; we also have a round robin from one family to another telling of the unexpected visit of an illegitimate child, a product of the father’s combat in Vietnam, which drags the family into decidedly un-festive chaos.

But one thing draws the stories together: they are very, very funny.

Skating Christmas Santa Figurine

Elf-life

The best story in the collection must be ‘The Santaland Diaries’, although I really enjoyed them all.

David Sedaris’s ‘straight man’ plunged into a supermarket vision of Christmas hell is just painfully funny. The stories he pulls out are all individually and separately so awful that they are hilarious.

He describes how there are various Elf jobs in the grotto, and one must take turns at doing each of them. You might be the Photo Elf, for example, who takes payment after each family leaves the grotto for an ‘idea of a photo’ – as the actual photo will probably be delivered after Christmas. Or you might be the Maze Elf, posted in the queue section of the grotto to hustle people along and entertain them in the queue. If you are the Exit Elf, it’s your job to get rid of people as fast as possible.

In between customers demanding not to be sent to a ‘chocolate Santa’, a flirtatious fellow Elf named Snowball and parents coming with bags full of devices to capture every moment of festive delight, poor old Sedaris – or Crumpet, as he has named himself – sends us holiday spirit from the front lines.

A great stocking filler

Although I think this book would be best read just before Christmas, because it’s a kind of antidote to all the frenzied festivities you can easily get caught up in before the big day, it would also make a fabulous gift.

My Kindle informed me that it takes about an hour and a half all told to read the whole collection, and you could happily fly through it during a post-prandial sofa huddle on Christmas Day.

And for all their mocking of Christmas, Sedaris’s stories are always lighthearted, fun and there to give the festive season a good old roasting.

I’d recommend this very highly for anyone looking for a bit of a breather from the Christmas build-up. Like any good Elf, Crumpet will be on hand to cheer you on.

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