Holidays on Ice is a collection of David Sedaris essays, some previously published and some new, all related to holidays. Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Halloween are all represented through autobiographical reflections as well as imaginative fictional stories. If you are unfamiliar with Sedaris, you should know that his writing is both hilarious and often shocking. He has a talent for making very inappropriate and unsettling statements but often in such a funny way that you laugh anyway. Like many people I became familiar with Sedaris’ work back in the 1990s when he was a regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition. Hearing him read one of his essays made the commute to work much more enjoyable. He has a unique voice, and listening to him read his work is the best way to experience it.
Five of the seven essays are fictional stories. “Seasons Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!”, “Based Upon a True Story” and “Christmas Means Giving” provide biting commentary on our tendencies to be self centered (especially at holiday time). “Christmas Gives Meaning” is a story of one-upsmanship that goes to an outrageous extreme. “The Cow and the Turkey” is, I think, the antidote to O. Henry’s “Gifts of the Magi.” But of all the fictional stories, my favorite is “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” a theater critic who gives honest, unflinching (and negative) reviews of children’s Christmas shows.
Sedaris is at his best when examining the idiosyncrasies of himself, his family and countless others he has encountered. This is nowhere more evident than in the first and perhaps most famous essay in the collection, “SantaLand Diaries”. NPR replays this one every year in December and it is absolutely worth a listen if you have never heard it. In his 30s, Sedaris took a job as an elf at Macy’s in New York. “SantaLand Diaries” chronicles his experiences on this job, revealing the ridiculous and hilarious behaviors of other elves, the Santas, parents and the children (and sometimes adults) who visit Macy’s to see Santa. For me, the highlight of this essay is when Sedaris demonstrates how he sang “Away in a Manger” when Santa insisted that he do so for a child. In an act of hysterical subversion Sedaris chose to sing it as Billie Holiday. “Jesus Shaves” recounts Sedaris’ time as an adult French language student and the sharing of bizarre holiday traditions related to Easter. “Us and Them” and “The Monster Mash” focus on Halloween. In the former, Sedaris recalls the childhood neighbors who, for no apparent good reason, did not have a TV and who, because they had been away for Halloween, decided to trick or treat on November first. “The Moster Mash” is not for the squeamish, as Sedaris describes what he saw, and heard, and smelled when he spent time observing the work of a medical examiners office. Employees performed autopsies on bodies found in various states of decomposition after a variety of deaths. This is one of those essays that makes one uncomfortable but also makes you laugh, and it if feels strange.
Holidays on Ice came out in 1997 and for the most part the humor still holds up. There are a few odd beats, such as referring to people as “retarded,” which is not done anymore, and some references to gun ownership laws that now seem outdated (and not so funny). Yet the observations on human weakness, fragility and stupidity are pretty spot on.