December 23, 20225
Years before humorist David Sedaris became a celebrated writer, he did a short stint as a Christmas elf at a Macy’s department store in New York.
His time as Santa’s helper was less than merry and bright — but it would go on to change his life.
Sedaris wrote about the dark side of holiday spirit in the Santaland Diaries, a sardonic collection of somewhat-exaggerated stories based on his travails as Crumpet the elf.
The surprising origins of ‘Santaland Diaries,’ an NPR tradition now in its 30th year
“I don’t know that I can look anyone in the eye and exclaim, ‘Oh my goodness, I think I see Santa!’ Or ‘Can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish?'” he decided. “It makes one’s mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. I think I’ll be a low-key sort of elf.”
Sedaris read from Santaland for the first time on Morning Edition in 1992, when he was still a struggling writer who occasionally read his work in nightclubs.
That seven-minute reading made him an in-demand talent overnight. And it created an NPR holiday tradition that’s now in its 30th year.
Sedaris reflected on Santaland’s staying power in a conversation with This American Life host Ira Glass — who actually facilitated that fateful first reading — on its 25th anniversary in 2017.
“If you sat down and you thought about it and you thought, ‘Huh, what could I write about that people would respond to?’ Well, everybody has to deal with Christmas,” he said. “And it’s either going to torment you or delight you. And maybe that’s why it resonated with people, because it affected everyone.”
Though, he added, if someone were to sit him down and task him specifically with writing something that would touch everybody, “I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything.”
And Sedaris also wants the record to show that despite the story’s air of Christmas cynicism, he’s no Grinch.
“It’s a bit interesting to me that people over the years have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, Santaland, you know, I hate Christmas too,'” he said. “I love Christmas. I thought it came across in the story. Love it!”
Click the play button above to hear Sedaris read as Crumpet the elf.