Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sedaris on Santa

While I found much of what David Sedaris had to say at once poignant and laugh out loud funny, the chapter “Six to Eight Black Men” also struck me as extremely interesting in subject matter and presentation. It said wonders about his ability to universalize the essay, as well as hold firmly onto his own definitive voice and experience. He led smoothly from general regional oddities in the US, to the oddities that he found in Europe with the common thread of unusual questions he thinks to ask the residents. The question that he got a kick of out of asking across the Atlantic? None other than an inquiry into their Christmas traditions of course. While not all Americans are guaranteed to celebrate Christmas, and certainly not all in the same way, you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what it is or the traditions associated with it.

This seemingly simple flow of thought is essential to how the essay works. First he starts with the oddities that we can find throughout our own familiar country – the blind can hunt? While this allows a great deal of ammunition for Dick Cheney jokes, it is also extremely important in tying the essay back to the reader. Something so counter-intuitive being present amongst us all allows us to share that silly history with the author, and also includes us as a lighthearted target in the joke. This then allows us to laugh when we experience the strangeness of the “other” cities – Santa is a skinny ex-bishop who kicks and kidnaps children with his band of slaves? We laugh because to us it seems so ridiculous, but we also feel we can laugh because we have our own ridiculous laws and ideas to compare it to. This leaves room not only for interest in something that seems hilariously inappropriate to our normal concept of a jolly and pleasant holiday, but it also gives room for thought on just how strange we might seem to these “strange” countries.

He makes this point evident with his signature dry lines such as, “It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value” in response to certain Christmas traditions where presents aren’t the focal point of the day (159). Simple comments like this are essential glue to the essay because they do much the same as the general format. This offers up a multi-directional laugh because it makes an apparent joke about the strange difference of other cultures’ traditions, but also more significantly a joke about our American preoccupation with material things. What we see as an obvious point of Christmas looks so shallow and vapid in contrast with the other traditions that we see as strange. Yet, it doesn’t come off as an accusation because he presents it with an honest selfishness that says he too partakes in this tradition, even though he recognizes the lack of real values within it. This complete circle of introducing with the joke on us, then leading into the joke on others then returning with the joke on us allows a full circle of appreciation and surprise at things we thought we were very familiar with.

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