Santaland Diaries
Written and performed by David Sedaris

 

The parents hold up the line and it is a Maze Elf’s job to hurry them along.

“Excuse me, sir, I’m sorry but we’re sort of busy today and I’d appreciate it if you could maybe wrap this up. There are quite a few people behind you.”

The parent then asks you to stand beside the child and wave. I do so. I stand beside a child and wave to the video camera, wondering where I will wind up. I picture myself on the television set in a paneled room in Wapahanset or Easternmost Meadows. I imagine the family fighting over command of the remote control, hitting the fast-forward button. The child’s wave becomes a rapid salute. I enter the picture and everyone in the room entertains the same thought: “What’s that asshole doing on our Christmas Memory tape?”

The moment these people are waiting for is the encounter with Santa. As a Photo Elf I watch them enter the room and take control.

“All right, Ellen, I want you and Marcus to stand in front of Santa and when I say, ‘now,’ I want you to get onto his lap. Look at me now. Look at Daddy until I tell you to look at Santa.”

He will address his wife, who is working the still camera, and she will crouch low to the ground with her light meter and a Nikon with many attachments. It is heavy and the veins in her arms stand out.

Then there are the multimedia families in groups, who say, “All right, now let’s get a shot of Anthony, Damascus, Theresa, Doug, Amy, Paul, and Vanity — can we squeeze them all together? Santa, how about you let Doug sit on your shoulders, can we do that?”

During these visits the children are rarely allowed to discuss their desires with Santa. They are too busy being art-directed by the parents.

“Vanity and Damascus, look over here, no, look here.”

“Santa, can you put your arm around Amy and shake hands with Paul at the same time?”

“That’s good. That’s nice.”

I have seen parents sit their child upon Santa’s lap and immediately proceed to groom: combing hair, arranging a hemline, straightening a necktie. I saw a parent spray their child’s hair, Santa treated as though he were a false prop made of cement, turning his head and wincing as the hair spray stung his eyes.

Young children, ages two to four, tend to be frightened of Santa. They have no interest in having their pictures taken because they don’t know what a picture is. They’re not vain, they’re babies. They are babies and they act accordingly — they cry. A Photo Elf understands that, once a child starts crying, it’s over. They start crying in Santa’s house and they don’t stop until they are at least ten blocks away.

When the child starts crying, Santa will offer comfort for a moment or two before saying, “Maybe we’ll try again next year.”

The parents had planned to send the photos to relatives and place them in scrapbooks. They waited in line for over an hour and are not about to give up so easily. Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake her sobbing daughter, yelling, “Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

I often take photographs of crying children. Even more grotesque is taking a picture of a crying child with a false grimace. It’s not a smile so much as the forced shape of a smile. Oddly, it pleases the parents.

“Good girl, Rachel. Now, let’s get the hell out of here. Your mother has a headache that won’t quit until you’re twenty-one.”

At least a third of Santa’s visitors are adults: couples, and a surprising number of men and women alone. Most of the single people don’t want to sit on Santa’s lap; they just stop by to shake his hand and wish him luck. Often the single adults are foreigners who just happened to be shopping at Macy’s and got bullied into the Maze by the Entrance Elf, whose job it is to hustle people in. One moment the foreigner is looking at china, and the next thing he knows he is standing at the Magic Tree, where an elf holding a palm-sized counter is asking how many in his party are here to see Santa.

“How many in your party?”

The foreigner answers, “Yes.”

“How many in your party is not a yes or no question.”

“Yes.”

Then a Santa Elf leads the way to a house where the confused and exhausted visitor addresses a bearded man in a red suit, and says, “Yes, OK. Today I am good.” He shakes Santa’s hand and runs, shaken, for the back door.

This afternoon a man came to visit Santa, a sloppy, good-looking man in his mid-forties. I thought he was another confused European, so I reassured him that many adults come to visit Santa, everyone is welcome. An hour later, I noticed the same man, back again to fellowship with Santa. I asked what he and Santa talk about, and in a cracked and puny voice he answered, “Toys. All the toys.”

I noticed a dent in the left side of his forehead. You could place an acorn in a dent like this. He waited in line and returned to visit a third time. On his final visit he got so excited he peed on Santa’s lap.

So far in SantaLand, I have seen Simone from “General Hospital,” Shawn from “All My Children,” Walter Cronkite, and Phil Collins. Last year one of the elves was suspended after asking Goldie Hawn to autograph her hand. We have been instructed to leave the stars alone.

Walter Cronkite was very tall, and I probably wouldn’t have recognized him unless someone had pointed him out to me. Phil Collins was small and well-groomed. He arrived with his daughter and an entourage of three. I don’t care about Phil Collins one way or the other but I saw some people who might and I felt it was my duty to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Look, there’s Phil Collins!”

Many of Santa’s visitors are from out of town and welcome the opportunity to view a celebrity, as it rounds out their New York experience. I’d point out Phil Collins and people would literally squeal with delight. Seeing as it is my job to make people happy, I didn’t have any problem with it. Phil Collins wandered through the Maze, videotaping everything with his camcorder and enjoying himself. Once he entered the Magic Tree, he was no longer visible to the Maze audience, so I began telling people that if they left immediately and took a right at the end of the hall, they could probably catch up with Phil Collins after his visit with Santa. So they did. People left. When Phil Collins walked out of SantaLand, there was a crowd of twenty people waiting for autographs. When the managers came looking for the big mouth, I said, “Phil Collins, who’s he?”

I spent a few hours in the Maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn. We were standing near the Lollipop Forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan. Father Christmas or the Devil — so close but yet so far. We imagined a SatanLand where visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood and feces before arriving at the Gates of Hell, where a hideous imp in a singed velvet costume would take them by the hand and lead them toward Satan. Once we thought of it we couldn’t get it out of our minds. Overhearing the customers we would substitute the word Satan for the word Santa.

“What do you think, Michael? Do you think Macy’s has the real Satan?”

“Don’t forget to thank Satan for the Baby Alive he gave you last year.”

“I love Satan.”

“Who doesn’t? Everyone loves Satan.”

I would rather drive upholstery tacks into my gums than work as the Usher Elf. The Usher stands outside Santa’s exit door and fills out the photo forms. While I enjoy trying to guess where people are from, I hate listening to couples bicker over how many copies they want.

It was interesting the first time I did it, but not anymore. While the parents make up their minds, the Usher has to prevent the excited children from entering Santa’s back door to call out the names of three or four toys they had neglected to request earlier.

When things are slow, an Usher pokes in his head and watches Santa with his visitors. This afternoon we were slow and I watched a forty-year-old woman and her ancient mother step in to converse with Santa. The daughter wore a short pink dress, decorated with lace — the type of dress that a child might wear. Her hair was trained into pigtails and she wore ruffled socks and patent leather shoes. This forty-year-old girl ran to Santa and embraced him, driving rouge into his beard. She spoke in a baby voice and then lowered it to a whisper. When they left I asked if they wanted to purchase the photo and the biggest little girl in the world whispered something in her mother’s ear and then she skipped away. She skipped. I watched her try and commune with the youngsters standing around the register until her mother pulled her away.

This morning I spent some time at the Magic Window with Sleighbell, an entertainer who is in the process of making a music video with her all-girl singing group. We talked about one thing and another, and she told me that she has appeared on a few television shows, mainly soap operas. I asked if she has ever done “One Life to Live,” and she said, yes, she had a bit part as a flamenco dancer a few years ago when Cord and Tina remarried and traveled to Madrid for their honeymoon.

Suddenly I remembered Sleighbell perfectly. On that episode she wore a red lace dress and stomped upon a shiny nightclub floor until Spain’s greatest bullfighter entered, challenging Cord to a duel. Sleighbell intervened. She stopped dancing and said to Cord, “Don’t do it, Señor. Yoot be a fool to fight weeth Spain’s greatest boolfighter!”

Sleighbell told me that the honeymoon was filmed here in the New York studio. That surprised me as I really thought it was shot in Spain. She told me that the dancing scene was shot in the late morning and afterwards there was a break for lunch. She took her lunch in the studio cafeteria and was holding her tray, when Tina waved her over to her table. Sleighbell had lunch with Tina! She said that Tina was very sweet and talked about her love for Smokey Robinson. I had read that Tina had driven a wedge between Smokey and his wife, but it was thrilling to hear it from someone who had the facts.

Later in the day I was put on the cash register where Andrea, one of the managers, told me that her friend Caroline was the person responsible for casting on “One Life to Live.” It was Caroline who replaced the old Tina with the new Tina. I loved the old Tina and will accept no substitutes, but I told Andrea that I liked the new Tina a lot, and she said, “I’ll pass that along to Caroline. She’ll be happy to hear it!” We were talking when Mitchell, another manager, got involved and said that he’d been on “One Life to Live” seven times. He played Clint’s lawyer five years ago when the entire Buchannon family was on trial for the murder of Mitch Laurence. Mitchell knows Victoria Buchannon personally and said that she’s just as sweet and caring in real life as she is on the show.

“She’s basically playing herself, except for the multiple personality disorder,” he said, pausing to verify a check on another elf’s register. He asked the customer for another form of ID, and while the woman cursed and fished through her purse, Mitchell told me that Clint tends to keep to himself but that Bo and Asa are a lot of fun.

I can’t believe I’m hearing these things. I know people who have sat around with Tina, Cord, Nicki, Asa, and Clint. I’m getting closer, I can feel it.

This evening I was working as a Counter Elf at the Magic Tree when I saw a woman unzip her son’s fly, release his penis, and instruct him to pee into a bank of artificial snow. He was a young child, four or five years old, and he did it, he peed. Urine dripped from the branches of artificial trees and puddled on the floor.

Tonight a man proposed to his girlfriend in one of the Santa houses. When Santa asked the man what he wanted for Christmas, he pulled a ring out of his pocket and said he wanted this woman to be his wife. Santa congratulated them both and the Photo Elf got choked up and started crying.

A spotted child visited Santa, climbed up on his lap, and expressed a wish to recover from chicken pox. Santa leapt up.

I’ve met elves from all walks of life. Most of them are show business people, actors and dancers, but a surprising number of them held real jobs at advertising agencies and brokerage firms before the recession hit. Bless their hearts, these people never imagined there was a velvet costume waiting in their future. They’re the really bitter elves. Many of the elves are young, high school and college students. They’re young and cute and one of the job perks is that I get to see them in their underpants. The changing rooms are located in the employee bathrooms behind SantaLand. The men’s bathroom is small and the toilets often flood, so we are forced to stand on an island of newspapers in order to keep our socks dry. The Santas have a nice dressing room across the hall, but you don’t want to see a Santa undress. Quite a few elves have taken to changing clothes in the hallway, beside their lockers. These elves tend to wear bathing suits underneath their costumes — jams, I believe they are called. I don’t like jams.

The overall cutest elf is a fellow from Queens named Snowball. Snowball tends to ham it up with the children, sometimes literally tumbling down the path to Santa’s house. I tend to frown on that sort of behavior but Snowball is hands down adorable — you want to put him in your pocket. Yesterday we worked together as Santa Elves and I became 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. At the end of our shift we were in the bathroom, changing clothes, when suddenly we were surrounded by three Santas and five other elves — all of them were guys that Snowball had been flirting with.

Snowball just leads elves on, elves and Santas. He is playing a dangerous game.

This afternoon I was stuck being Photo Elf with Santa Santa. I don’t know his real name; no one does. During most days, there is a slow period when you sit around the house and talk to your Santa. Most of them are nice guys and we sit around and laugh, but Santa Santa takes himself a bit 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 of the children.”

I said, “Yes, but what do you do for money?”

“Santa doesn’t need money,” he said.

Santa Santa sits and waves and jingles 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?

He says, “Oh, Little Elf, Little Elf, straighten up those mantel toys for Santa.” I reminded him that I have a name, Crumpet, and then I straightened up the stuffed animals.

“Oh, Little Elf, Little Elf, bring Santa a throat lozenge.” So I brought him a lozenge.

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. Most of them say “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Santa Santa then asks if they will 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 to sing that favorite carol of hers.” Then I have to stand there and sing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which I hate. Half the time young Brenda’s parents are my age and that certainly doesn’t help matters much.

This afternoon 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 idea of a picture, while her son lay beneath her kicking and heaving, having a tantrum.

The woman said, “Riley, 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 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. “All your appliances, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It’s going to be so cold and dark where you are. Man, Riley, are you ever going to suffer. You’re going to wish you never heard the name Santa.”

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 the towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.”

The mother said, “No, that’s enough, really.”

I spend all day lying to people, saying, “You look so pretty,” and, “Santa can’t wait to visit with you. You’re all he talks about. It’s just not Christmas without you. You’re Santa’s favorite person in the entire tri-state area.” Sometimes I lay it on real thick: “Aren’t you the Princess of Rongovia? Santa said a beautiful princess was coming here to visit him. He said she would be wearing a red dress and that she was very pretty, but not stuck up or two-faced. That’s you, isn’t it?” I lay it on and the parents mouth the words “Thank you” and “Good job.”

To one child I said, “You’re a model, aren’t you?” The girl was maybe six years old and said, “Yes, I model, but I also act. I just got a second callback for a Fisher-Price commercial.” The girl’s mother said, “You may recognize Katelyn from the ‘My First Sony’ campaign. She’s on the box.” I said yes, of course.

All I do is lie, and that has made me immune to compliments.

Lately I am feeling trollish and have changed my elf name from Crumpet to Blisters. Blisters — I think it’s cute.

Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those Turtles.

Last year a woman decided she wanted a picture of her cat sitting on Santa’s lap, so she smuggled it into Macy’s in a duffel bag. The cat sat on Santa’s lap for five seconds before it shot out the door, and it took six elves forty-five minutes before they found it in the kitchen of the employee cafeteria.

A child came to Santa this morning and his mother said, “All right, Jason. Tell Santa what you want. Tell him what you want.”

Jason said, “I… want… Prokton and… Gamble to… stop animal testing.”

The mother said, “Procter, Jason, that’s Procter and Gamble. And what do they do to animals? Do they torture animals, Jason? Is that what they do?”

Jason said, Yes, they torture. He was probably six years old.