From Holidays on Ice,
“The Santaland Diaries”
I was Photo Elf tonight for the oldest Santa. Usually their names are written on the water cups they keep hidden away on the toy shelf. Every now and then a Santa will call out for water and an elf will hold the cup while his master drinks through a straw. I looked on the cup and saw no name. We were busy tonight and I had no time for an introduction. This was an outstanding Santa, wild but warm. The moment a family leaves, this Santa, sensing another group huddled upon his doorstep, will begin to sing.
He sings, “A pretty girl … is like a melody.”
The parents and children enter the room, and if there is a girl in the party, Santa will take a look at her, hold his gloved hands to his chest, and fake a massive heart attack — falling back against the cushion and moaning with a combination of pleasure and pain. The he slowly comes out of it and says, “Elf, Elf … are you there?”
“Yes, Santa, I’m here.”
“Elf, I just had a dream that I was standing before the most beautiful girl in the world. She was right here, in my house.”
Then I say, “It wasn’t a dream, Santa. Open your eyes, my friend. She’s standing before you.”
Santa rubs his eyes and shakes his head as if he were a parish priest, visited by Christ. “Oh, heavenly day,” he says, addressing the child. “You are the most beautiful girl I have seen in six hundred and seventeen years.”
Then he scoops her into his laps and flatters every aspect of her character. The child is delirious. Santa gestures toward the girl’s mother, adding, “Is that your sister I see standing there in the corner?”
“No, that’s my mother.”
Santa called the woman over close and asks if she has been a good mother. “Do you tell your daughter that you love her? Do you tell her every day?”
The mothers always blush and say, “I try, Santa.”
Santa asks the child to give her mother a kiss. Then he addresses the father, again requesting that he tell the child how much he loves her.
Santa ends the visit, saying, “Remember that the most important thing is to try and love other people as much as they love you.”
The parents choke up and often cry. They grab Santa’s hand and, on the way out, my hand. They say it was worth the wait. The most severe cases open their wallets and hand Santa a few bucks. We’re not supposed to accept tips, but most Santas take the money and wink, tucking it into their boot. This Santa looked at the money as if it were a filthy Kleenex. He closed his eyes and prepared for the next family.
With boys, this Santa plays on their brains: each one is the smartest boy in the world.
The great thing about this Santa is that he never even asks what the children want. Most times he involves the parents to the point where they surrender their urge for documentation. They lay down their video recorders and gather round for the festival of love.
This was my last day of work. We had been told that Christmas Eve is a slow day, but this was the day a week of training was meant to prepare us for. It was a day of nonstop action, a day when the managers spent a great deal of time with their walkie-talkies.
I witnessed a fistfight between two mothers and watched while a woman experienced a severe, crowd-related anxiety attack: falling to the floor and groping for breath, her arms moving as though she were fighting off bats. A Long Island father called Santa a faggot because he couldn’t take the time to recite “The Night Before Christmas” to his child. Parents in long lines left disposable diapers at the door to Santa’s house. It was the rowdiest crowd I have ever seen, and we were short on elves, many of whom simply did not show up or called in sick. As a result we had our lunch hours cut in half and had to go without our afternoon breaks. Many elves complained bitterly, but the rest of us found ourselves in the moment we had all been waiting for. It was us against them. It was time to be a trouper, and I surrendered completely. 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. My plane was due to leave at eight o’clock, and I stayed until the last moment, figuring the time it would take to get to the airport. It was with reservation that I reported to the manager, telling her I had to leave. She was at a cash register, 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 fucking bitch, because that’s exactly what you are. Now get out of my sight before I do something we both regret.”
David Sedaris (born 1956)
In what's become a bizarre Advent tradition, C. Clement Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicolas" has been pushed out of this space by a more contemporary, less well known work. This year, it's a brace of excerpts from "The Santaland Diaries," David Sedaris's account of his season working as an elf for Macy's. These excerpts sum up the Christmas retail experience rather neatly: the delight that comes in helping a customer beyond their expectations; the exhilaration that you feel on your busiest days; and the desire, often felt and rarely acted upon, to hurl epithets at your problem customers. I have never and hopefully will never address a customer the way the Macy's manager did, but I promise you that everyone who has ever worked in retail has desperately wanted to at some point in their career.