Santaland Diaries
Written and performed by David Sedaris

  

This week my least favorite elf is a guy from Florida whom I call “The Walrus.” The Walrus has a handlebar mustache, no chin, and a neck the size of my waist. In the dressing room he confesses to being “a bit of a ladies’ man.”

The Walrus acts as though SantaLand were a singles bar. It is embarrassing to work with him. We’ll be together at the Magic Window, where he pulls women aside, places his arm around their shoulders, and says, “I know you’re not going to ask Santa for good looks. You’ve already got those, pretty lady. Yes, indeed, you’ve got those in spades.”

In his mind the women are charmed, dizzy with his attention.

I pull him aside and say, “That was a mother you just did that to, a married woman with three children.”

He says, “I didn’t see any ring.” Then he turns to the next available woman and whistles. “Santa’s married but I’m not. Hey, pretty lady, I’ve got plenty of room on my knee.”

I Photo Elfed all day for a variety of Santas and it struck me that many of the parents don’t allow their children to speak at all. A child sits upon Santa’s lap and the parents say, “All right now, Amber, tell Santa what you want. Tell him you want a Baby Alive and My Pretty Ballerina and that winter coat you saw in the catalog.”

The parents name the gifts they have already bought. They don’t want to hear the word “pony,” or “television set,” so they talk through the entire visit, placing words in the child’s mouth. When the child hops off the lap, the parents address their children, each and every time, with, “What do you say to Santa?”

The child says, “Thank you, Santa.”

It is sad because you would like to believe that everyone is unique and then they disappoint you every time by being exactly the same, asking for the same things, reciting the exact same lines as though they have been handed a script.

All of the adults ask for a Gold Card or a BMW and they rock with laughter, thinking they are the first person brazen enough to request such pleasures.

Santa says, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Couples over the age of fifty all say, “I don’t want to sit on your lap, Santa, I’m afraid I might break it!”

How do you break a lap? How did so many people get the idea to say the exact same thing?

I went to a store on the Upper West Side. This store is like a Museum of Natural History where everything is for sale: every taxidermic or skeletal animal that roams the earth is represented in this shop and, because of that, it is popular. I went with my brother last weekend. Near the cash register was a bowl of glass eyes and a sign reading “DO NOT HOLD THESE GLASS EYES UP AGAINST YOUR OWN EYES: THE ROUGH STEM CAN CAUSE INJURY.”

I talked to the fellow behind the counter and he said, “It’s the same thing every time. First they hold up the eyes and then they go for the horns. I’m sick of it.”

It disturbed me that, until I saw the sign, my first impulse was to hold those eyes up to my own. I thought it might be a laugh riot.

All of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I’m afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints.

There was a big “Sesame Street Live” extravaganza over at Madison Square Garden, so thousands of people decided to make a day of it and go straight from Sesame Street to Santa. We were packed today, absolutely packed, and everyone was cranky. Once the line gets long we break it up into four different lines because anyone in their right mind would leave if they knew it would take over two hours to see Santa. Two hours — you could see a movie in two hours. Standing in a two-hour line makes people worry that they’re not living in a democratic nation. People stand in line for two hours and they go over the edge. I was sent into the hallway to direct the second phase of the line. The hallway was packed with people, and all of them seemed to stop me with a question: which way to the down escalator, which way to the elevator, the Patio Restaurant, gift wrap, the women’s rest room, Trim-A-Tree. There was a line for Santa and a line for the women’s bathroom, and one woman, after asking me a dozen questions already, asked, “Which is the line for the women’s bathroom?” I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it.

She said, “I’m going to have you fired.”

I had two people say that to me today, “I’m going to have you fired.” Go ahead, be my guest. I’m wearing a green velvet costume; it doesn’t get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are?

“I’m going to have you fired!” and I wanted to lean over and say, “I’m going to have you killed.”

In the Maze, on the way to Santa’s house, you pass spectacles — train sets, dancing bears, the candy-cane forest, and the penguins. The penguins are set in their own icy wonderland. They were built years ago and they frolic mechanically. They stand outside their igloo and sled and skate and fry fish in a pan. For some reason people feel compelled to throw coins into the penguin display. I can’t figure it out for the life of me — they don’t throw money at the tree of gifts or the mechanical elves, or the mailbox of letters, but they empty their pockets for the penguins. I asked what happens to that money, and a manager told me that it’s collected for charity, but I don’t think so. Elves take the quarters for the pay phone, housekeeping takes the dimes, and I’ve seen visitors, those that aren’t throwing money, I’ve seen them scooping it up as fast as they can.

I was working the Exit today. I’m supposed to say, “This way out of SantaLand,” but I can’t bring myself to say it as it seems like I’m rushing people. They wait an hour to see Santa, they’re hit up for photo money, and then someone’s hustling them out. I say, “This way out of SantaLand if you’ve decided maybe it’s time for you to go home.”

“You can exit this way if you feel like it.”

We’re also supposed to encourage people to wait outside while the parent with money is paying for a picture. “If you’re waiting for someone to purchase a photo, wait outside the double doors.”

I say, “If you’re waiting for someone to purchase a picture, you might want to wait outside the double doors where it is pleasant and the light is more flattering.”

I had a group of kids waiting this afternoon, waiting for their mom to pay for pictures, and this kid reached into his pocket and threw a nickel at me. He was maybe twelve years old, jaded in regard to Santa, and he threw his nickel and it hit my chest and fell to the floor. I picked it up, cleared my throat, and handed it back to him. He threw it again. Like I was a penguin. So I handed it back and he threw it higher, hitting me in the neck. I picked up the nickel and turned to another child and said, “Here, you dropped this.” He examined the coin, put it in his pocket, and left.

Yesterday was my day off, and the afflicted came to visit Santa. I Photo Elfed for Santa Ira this afternoon, and he told me all about it. These were severely handicapped children who arrived on stretchers and in wheelchairs. Santa couldn’t put them on his lap, and often he could not understand them when they voiced their requests. Still, though, he made it a point to grab each child’s hand and ask what they wanted for Christmas. He did this until he came to a child who had no hands. This made him self-conscious, so he started placing a hand on the child’s knee until he came to a child with no legs. After that he decided to simply nod his head and chuckle.

I got stuck with Santa Santa again this afternoon and had to sing and fetch for three hours. Late in the afternoon, a child said she didn’t know what her favorite Christmas carol was. Santa said, “ ‘Rudolph’? ‘Jingle Bells’? ‘White Christmas’? ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’? ‘Away in a Manger’? ‘Silent Night’?”

The girl agreed to “Away in a Manger,” but didn’t want to sing it because she didn’t know the words.

Santa Santa said, “Oh, Little Elf, Little Elf, come sing ‘Away in a Manger’ for us.”

It didn’t seem fair that I should have to solo, so I told him I didn’t know the words.

Santa Santa said, “Of course you know the words. Come now, sing!”

So I sang it the way Billie Holliday might have sung it if she’d put out a Christmas album. “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord, Jesus, lay down his sweet head.”

Santa Santa did not allow me to finish.

This afternoon we set a record by scooting fourteen hundred people through SantaLand in the course of an hour. Most of them were school groups in clots of thirty or more. My Santa would address them, saying, “All right, I’m going to count to three, and on three I want you all to yell what you want and I need you to say it as loud as you can.”

Then he would count to three and the noise was magnificent. Santa would cover his ears and say, “Okay, then — one by one I want you to tell me what you’re planning to leave Santa on Christmas Eve.”

He would go around the room and children would name different sorts of cookies, and he would say, “What about sandwiches? What if Santa should want something more substantial than a cookie?”

Santa’s thrust this afternoon was the boredom of his nine-year relationship. He would wave the children good-bye and then turn to me, saying, “I want an affair, goddamn it — just a little one, just something to get me through the next four or five years.”

Some of these children, they get nervous just before going in to visit Santa. They pace and wring their hands and stare at the floor. They act like they’re going in for a job interview. I say, “Don’t worry, Santa’s not going to judge you. He’s very relaxed about that sort of thing. He used to be judgmental but people gave him a hard time about it so he stopped. Trust me, you have nothing to worry about.”

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. Then 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 lap and flatters every aspect of her character. The child is delirious. Santa gestures toward the girl’s mother, asking, “Is that your sister I see standing there in the corner?”

“No, that’s my mother.”

Santa calls 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.

I was the Pointer Elf again this afternoon, one of my favorite jobs. The Pointer stands inside the Magic Tree and appoints available Santa Elves to lead parties of visitors to the houses. First-time visitors are enthusiastic, eager that they are moments away from Santa. Some of the others, having been here before, have decided to leave nothing to chance.

Out of all the Santas, two are black and both are so light-skinned that, with the beard and makeup, you would be hard-pressed to determine their race.

Last week, a black woman became upset when, having requested a “Santa of color,” she was sent to Jerome.

After she was led to the house, the woman demanded to speak with a manager.

“He’s not black,” the woman complained.

Bridget assured this woman that Jerome was indeed black.

The woman said, “Well, he isn’t black enough.”

Jerome is a difficult Santa, moody and unpredictable. He spends a lot of time staring off into space and tallying up his paycheck for the hours he has worked so far. When a manager ducks in, encouraging him to speed things up, Jerome says, “Listen up, I’m playing a role here. Do you understand? A dramatic role that takes a great deal of preparation, so don’t hassle me about ‘Time.’”

Jerome seems to have his own bizarre agenda. When the children arrive, he looks down at his boots and lectures them, suggesting a career in entomology.

“Entomology, do you know what that is?”

He tells them that the defensive spray of the stink bug may contain medicinal powers that can one day cure mankind of communicable diseases.

“Do you know about holistic medicine?” he asks.

The Photo Elf takes a picture of yawning children.

The other black Santa works during weeknights and I have never met him but hear he is a real entertainer, popular with Photo Elves and children.

The last time I was the Pointer Elf, a woman approached me and whispered, “We would like a traditional Santa. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”

I sent her to Jerome.

Yesterday Snowball was the Pointer and a woman pulled him aside, saying, “Last year we had a chocolate Santa. Make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I saw it all today. I was Pointer Elf for all of five minutes before a man whispered, “Make sure we get a white one this year. Last year we were stuck with a black.”

A woman touched my arm and mouthed, “White — white like us.”

I address a Santa Elf, the first in line, and hand these people over. Who knows where they will wind up? The children are antsy, excited — they want to see Santa. The children are sweet. The parents are manipulative and should be directed toward the A&S Plaza, two blocks away. A&S has only two Santas working at the same time — a white Santa and a black Santa, and it’s very clear-cut: whites in one line and blacks in another.

I’ve had requests from both sides. White Santa, black Santa, a Pointer Elf is instructed to shrug his shoulders and feign ignorance, saying, “There’s only one Santa.”

Today I experienced my cash register nightmare. The actual financial transactions weren’t so bad — I’ve gotten the hang of that. The trouble are the voids. A customer will offer to pay in cash and then, after I have arranged it, they examine their wallets and say, “You know what, I think I’ll put that on my card instead.”

This involves voids and signatures from the management.

I take care of the paperwork, accept their photo form, and staple it to the receipt. Then it is my job to say, “The pictures taken today will be mailed January twelfth.”

The best part of the job is watching their faces fall. These pictures are sent to a lab to be processed; it takes time, all these pictures so late in the season. If they wanted their pictures to arrive before Christmas, they should have come during the first week we were open. Lots of people want their money back after learning the pictures will arrive after Christmas, in January, when Christmas is forgotten. Void.

We were very crowded today and I got a kick out of completing the transaction, handing the customer a receipt, and saying, “Your photos will be mailed on August tenth.”

August is much funnier than January. I just love to see that look on someone’s face, the mouth a perfect O.

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. And, hey, Merry Christmas!”