Like most families, mine has many treasured holiday traditions. One of the most sacred is unpacking our fuzzy-haired and completely deranged-looking angel from the 1970s Jack Daniels box in which she resides during the offseason. We then attempt (and usually fail) to reattach the one tiny plastic arm that constantly falls off before we place her atop the tree. My mom and dad bought the angel before I was born, and as homely as she is, I’m pretty sure she’s the only item my siblings and I will fight over when the time comes to divvy up my parents’ things.
Another perennial Christmas favorite in my family, whether we are together or apart, is David Sedaris’s essay collection, Holidays on Ice. Specifically the audio recording, because as funny as Sedaris’s writing is, hearing him read it aloud truly puts it over the top. Holidays on Ice, as you can imagine, contains essays with holiday themes. There are Halloween, Easter and Thanksgiving stories in the collection as well, but the true gems are about Christmas.
The longest and best-known piece in Holidays on Ice is “SantaLand Diaries”. The essay that essentially launched Sedaris’ career originally aired in 1992 on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” In the story, he recounts his time working as an elf in SantaLand at Macy’s Herald Square. More than 20 years may have passed since its debut, but, aside from some slightly dated celebrity references, the essay remains just as hilarious as it did the year it first appeared. NPR airs a heavily abridged version, so if that’s all you’ve heard, it’s definitely worth your while to listen to the whole piece. I do so every year, with my mom if possible, because it just isn’t Christmas to me until I see her cry with laughter as Sedaris recounts how, after an angry customer says she is going to have him fired, he imagines telling her, “I’m going to have you killed.”
Although “SantaLand Diaries” is the most popular essay, still airing every year on NPR, the funniest piece in the collection is the brilliant “Six to Eight Black Men,”which recounts holiday traditions in the other countries. It’s a particular favorite among my siblings and I mostly because it’s hilarious, but also because it reminds us of our mother’s weird stories about her childhood Christmases in Germany. Waiting until Christmas Eve to put the tree up is strange enough, but according to my mother, German Christmas also involves mustard-filled prank donuts and waking up to find fruit in your shoes. But the traditions Sedaris recounts in “Six to Eight Black Men” are even weirder than that. The story Dutch people tell their kids about Christmas is hands down the most bonkers thing I’ve ever heard. As is his way, Sedaris simultaneously revels in and pokes fun at the (fairly racist) tale, while slyly pointing out the stranger elements of our own American lore.
Other Christmas stories in the collection include “Dinah the Christmas Whore” and “Let it Snow,” both of which are childhood stories that feature what is arguably the best part of any of the writer’s essays: the whole Sedaris clan. I’ll be honest and say that “Seasons Greetings to Our Friends and Family!” and “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol” are not among my favorites. The former is a fictional Christmas letter from hell, and the latter is a mock scathing review of an elementary school Christmas pageant. They’re both funny, but they don’t pack quite the same punch as some of the tighter, wittier pieces in the collection.
There are several versions of Holidays on Ice floating around on Amazon, iTunes and the like. It was originally published in 1997, but the 2008 version is the one you want since it includes more stories. As I mentioned before, I recommend the audiobook over the printed version or eBook. If you have a drive, a flight, or a train ride to wherever you’re going for the holidays, nothing will pass the time quite like listening to some Sedaris Christmas magic.
If your family is like mine and enjoys some slightly off-center holiday fun, you might want to play the stories for them and start a new tradition of your own. But keep your angel out of the Jack Daniels box. That’s just for us.