Spectres & Souls
The 23rd of December 2022 will mark thirty years since ‘Santaland Diaries’ featured on Morning Edition on National Public Radio. In 1992, I split my time between Canberra, where I had a postdoctoral fellowship at the Australian National University, the People’s Republic of China, where friends flourished once more in the midst of a phantasmagoria, and Boston, where I was working on a film about the 1989 Beijing Uprising.
‘Santaland Diaries’ was a wry account by David Sedaris of being a ‘working elf’ at Macy’s in New York in the run up to Christmas. The broadcast, on 22 December 1992, proved to be so popular that it has been re-broadcast regularly, so much so that it has turned into something of a Christmas tradition in its own right (see ‘David Sedaris, Ira Glass And 25 Years Of “Santaland Diaries”’, Morning Edition, 21 December 2017). Upon hearing ‘Santaland Diaries’ I became and have remained a listener to and reader of David Sedaris’s work.
In 2020, we marked the less-than-festive Christmas season with ‘Holiday’, a song by Lil Nas X. In the editorial introduction to the song, which was offered as part of a four-chapter preamble to China Heritage Annual 2021, I quoted ‘On Heritage 遺’, the essay in which I outlined the rationale behind China Heritage:
‘Over the last century China’s power-holders have been tireless in their efforts to order life according to mutating political priorities and by enumerating and imposing social and ethical norms. The Chinese language is littered with the numbered slogans and exhortations imposed on the people, be they devised by the Nationalists or the Communists.’
I went on to say that;
‘Power-holders elsewhere, be they active in politics, the media, or the economic, cultural, online, academic and social realms, share similar aspirations. To them we are nay-sayers and to readers who appreciate our efforts, we champion the sentiments of James Baldwin:
“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” ’
— from ‘Ho-Ho Holiday — Lil Nas X & New Sinology’, China Heritage, 24 December 2020
‘Holiday’ was a celebration of freedom (as well as in-your-face individuality, commercialism and bravado) that reflected the particular genius of Lil Nas X.
The style and tone of David Sedaris may be vastly different from that of Nas, but their enlivening spirits provide nonetheless a fortuitous bookend to these twelve months.
Following ‘Have Yourself a Very Merry Cybernetic Xmas 2021’, a Christmas card painted by Catherine Churchman for friends, we offer links to ‘Christmas and Commerce’, a work in three acts broadcast on NPR on 20 December 1996. It features ‘Santaland Diaries’ by David Sedaris and ‘Christmas Freud’ by David Rakoff. This is followed by select entries from Sedaris’s A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003-2020), published in October 2021.
We are grateful to the historian and artist Catherine Churchman for permission to reprint the latest in her series of Christmas cards.
— Geremie R. Barmé
- ‘Streams Descending Turn to Trees that Climb’ — five years of China Heritage, 16 December 2021
- China Heritage Annual 2021
Christmas & Commerce
Morning Edition, NPR
Stories about the intersection of Christmas and retail, originally broadcast in 1996 when our show was only a year old. Including David Sedaris’s story “Santaland Diaries,” which first aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.
[To hear any of the ‘three acts’, click on the title — Ed.]
- Ira Glass, Toys R Us. Host Ira Glass goes to one of the epicenters of modern Christmas — the world’s biggest toy store — minutes before closing on Christmas Eve. (4 minutes)
‘Christmas, more than any other day in the American year, is a day when we’re all handed the same stage props. The same tree, the presents, the meal, the relatives, and all the same expectations. And then we all try to create, more or less, the same kind of day. It’s like hundreds of millions of people all set to work doing exactly the same art project. And not just any art project, but a very high stakes art project, an art project everybody cares about getting right. And in that setting, the choices people make never seem clearer.’
- David Sedaris, Santaland Diaries. Writer David Sedaris’s true account of two Christmas seasons he spent working as an elf at Macy’s department store in New York. When a shorter version of this story first aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, it generated more tape requests than any story in the show’s history to that point. (30 minutes)
‘This afternoon, I was stuck being Photo Elf for Santa Santa. I don’t know his real name. No one does. During most days, there’s a slow period when you sit around the house and talk to Santa. And 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 the children.” 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. 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.’
- David Rakoff, Christmas Freud. David Rakoff tells about his experience playing Sigmund Freud in the window of upscale Barney’s department store in Manhattan. For Christmas. This was the first of dozens of appearances on Morning Edition by David Rakoff, who died in 2012. His last book was “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel.” A tribute episode devoted to Rakoff was broadcast in 2012, see “Our Friend David.” (15 minutes)
‘If psychoanalysis was late 19th century secular Judaism’s way of finding spiritual meaning in a post-religious world and retail is the late 20th century’s way of finding spiritual meaning in a post-religious world, what does it mean that I’m impersonating the father of psychoanalysis in a store window to commemorate a religious holiday? In the window, I fantasize about starting an entire Christmas Freud movement. Christmas Freuds everywhere, providing grownups and children alike with the greatest gift of all, insight.’
Full Program on the NPR site:
- ‘Christmas & Commerce’ (audio)
Listen to the Full Program here:
Home of the Bottomless Fiasco
from David Sedaris, A Carnival of Snackery
January 11, 2012
At dinner last night a woman named Annie recalled a T-shirt she’d recently seen someone wearing. It read:
WHAT DO WE WANT?
A CURE FOR TOURETTE’S.
WHEN DO WE WANT IT?
November 1, 2013
A few months back, the School of the Art Institute asked if I could come and present an award to a faculty member. I said yes, and they asked if, while I was at it, I might also say a few words about my time as a student. The organizer suggested I speak off the cuff, but the idea made me uncomfortable, so I spent several days crafting a speech. Looking back, I wish I’d asked who was going to be in the audience. It’s the single most important bit of information a person needs, and I can’t believe I proceeded without it. If I could go back in time, I’d throw my written remarks away and improvise, no matter how sloppy it might have sounded. Instead, after walking into the room and finding fifty or so people, almost all of them in their mid-eighties, I went ahead as planned. The problem wasn’t the speech so much as the joke I used to start it:
An old man looks out the rain-streaked window, saying, “If this weather keeps up, the roads are going to be a real nightmare.”
His grandson rolls his eyes and sneers. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
The old man thinks for a moment, then says, “Okay. Your grandmother’s ass can take my entire fist.”
Nobody laughed. No one.
May 4, 2013
A joke from last night’s signing:
A plane develops engine trouble and when the pilot announces that soon they will drop into the ocean, a female passenger takes the floor. “If I’m going to die, I want to die happy,” she shouts. “Is anyone here man enough to make me feel like a woman?”
A fellow stands up a few rows away and takes off his shirt. Then he tosses it to her, saying, “Here, iron this.”
May 14, 2017
I met a male nurse at last night’s signing. “I thought of you not long ago,” he told me. “I was putting a catheter in a patient, a woman in a coma, when she started to pee. That’s common enough,” he continued, “but then she farted. The air blew through the urine and a drop of it flew into the air and went right into my open mouth.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
“My hands were full, so there was nothing I could do,” he told me. “Anyway, it made me think of you!”
November 13, 2017
A joke Ronnie told me:
It’s night, and a cop stops a car a couple of priests are riding in. “I’m looking for two child molesters,” he says.
The priests think for a moment. “We’ll do it!” they say.
February 14, 2020
At dinner last night Fawnee told me about a calendar she’d seen called Social Justice Kittens. It’s by Sean Tejaratchi and is pictures of kittens combined with actual tweets by so-called social justice warriors. These include:
— “Your ‘opinion’ is a dangerous ideology that puts me in harm’s way.”
— “When I’m discussing my pain, your job is to listen.”
— “Humor is one of the most vicious weapons in the arsenal of cultural oppression.”
— “Every day I face microaggressions and micro-invalidations from my so-called allies.”
— “You are terrified because I am Living My Truth and singing a Song of Myself.”
— “Your heteronormative narrative decelebrates both my inner and outer bodyshapes.”
— “I’m sorry I was born privileged. It disgusts me and I feel so much shame.”
— “My self-interrogation has deeply impacted my own awareness of privilege, and I understand how contemplative practices can be supportive tools to unpack and navigate my conditioning.”
— “Rational thought should be replaced with a transversal and multidimensional dialogue of knowledges.”
— “Your rage comes from fear and hatred. Our rage comes from love.”
— “I am creating a non-hierarchal safespace to express my intersections.”
— “I am not here to educate you. Shut up, listen, and own your ancient legacy of hatred and wrongness.”
How does one even begin to pick a favorite? I wasn’t familiar with the term microinvalidation and learned by looking it up this morning that it means doing pretty much anything: If I look at you; if I don’t look at you. If I speak; if I don’t. Talking over someone most certainly counts, though there’s probably a whole other category for that. What scares me is that there might be a reaction to these tweets that doesn’t involve laughter, that there’s a world out there in which these lines make sense.
October 5, 2020
… After checking in, Katharine and I took a walk through the downtown area. One of the restaurants we passed was Italian. Bocca, it was called, and its neon sign pictured a bottle of Chianti that was tilted and emptying itself into a waiting glass. “That type of bottle, the kind that’s got a wicker exterior, is called a fiasco,” I said. “Isn’t that the best?” I thought that Bocca’s motto could be “Home of the bottomless fiasco.” Then I thought that it could be America’s motto as well, at least America under Trump.
November 18, 2020
I’ve finished answering the letters Alyssa gave me a few weeks back. One was from a woman who wrote that when deaf people get their hearing, they’re always surprised that the sun makes no noise. They naturally assumed it would roar, though if it did, you’d think it might have been mentioned somewhere along the way, in songs at least. Maybe that’s what they thought was meant by “I was awoken by the sun.”