Looking A Gift Book In The Mouth: On David Sedaris’s “Holidays On Ice”

A stylized image of David Sedaris, American humorist and author of "Holidays on Ice". The original photo was taken by Harald Krichel.

Books are the best gifts, of course; however, the giving of a book can be a fraught experience if the recipient is not necessarily a devout reader. Yet there are times when gifts are also a sign of appreciation, a requirement in the social contract. In our times now, certain considerations must be made, and presenting a host with a gift card or a half-vinegar bottle of wine do not make the strong statement of being the most appreciative of the guests, the best guest, discrete but intimate. Books are quite intimate, as any reader who is a real reader knows, and giving a beloved book to a beloved friend is apple-pie-easy. Sometimes, though, the gift must be made to someone not so loved, maybe, someone who endlessly offends sensitivities, laughs loudly while others cringe—then David Sedaris is for you.

The required gift is usually associated with two holidays—the birthdays of friends and Christmas. Regardless of whatever spiritual beliefs a body might have, gifts are expected at Christmas. Fret ye not, good gentlemen, David Sedaris’s Holidays on Ice (1997) will serve you well as the gift book for people you aren’t sure you like. Although Sedaris is enough of a darling of New York City that multiple reviews are hidden behind the New York Times paywall, a review by Alexandra Bowman in DC Theater Arts (Nov. 2022) poses a conundrum—Sedaris as both “someone who writes for highbrow literati and presents himself as one” as well as being someone who presents “commentary on cultural issues [that] left a bitter taste in my mouth”. She further states that “some of the most memorable stories Sedaris told on stage framed women or people of color as the individuals we’re supposed to laugh at.” While some people might hold the view that this is punching down, and certainly cultural shifts effect what is comedic acceptability, Sedaris revealed that his goal is not particularly the social change sought by pure comedians such as Carlin, but motivated by “members of a secret society founded on self-loathing” (Naked, 85). Caustic authors are no surprise to experienced readers, and Sedaris’s pattern of trochaic language gives the impression of simple declarative sentencing:

We traveled the path a second time and were given the code names for various posts, such as ‘The Vomit Corner’, a mirrored wall near the Magic Tree, where nauseous children tend to surrender the contents of their stomachs. When someone vomits, the nearest elf is supposed to yell ‘VAMOOSE’, which is the name of the janitorial product used by the store” (Holidays on Ice, 11).

Yet these are appositive constructions, and while a Christmas temp worker might have a story about upset children, Sedaris’s use of phrases such as “surrender the contents” and “janitorial product” are obvious language choices. There’s no doubt that the work is deftly constructed, and this may account for some of the author’s popularity.

There’s a decided mean-spiritedness to David Sedaris’s work, but Sedaris himself dismisses his naysayers in an essay for Bookreporter: “There is literally nothing you can print anymore that isn’t going to generate a negative response”. He defends himself with the statement: “If you read an essay in Esquire and don’t like it, there could be something wrong with the essay. If it’s in The New Yorker, on the other hand, and you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you [italics Sedaris]”. In this, perhaps arrogant, proposition, Sedaris seems to insist that his audience join the mean-spiritedness that underlies what Alexandra Bowman called “attempts to use irony, contrast, parody and/or satire to comment on deeply complex and sensitive issues”.  While use of these devices is traditional in comedy, Sedaris extends his use of hyperbole into the images of horror:

How many times have I opened the door to Cherise, her face swollen and mustard colored, suffering another of her husband’s violent slugfests! She’s been smacked in the face so many times she’s lucky if she can see anything through those swollen eyes of hers! If the makeup she applies is any indication of her vision, then I believe it is safe to say she can’t see two inches in front of her…she’s on pills, everyone knows that. She’s desperate for attention and I might pity her under different circumstances” (Holidays on Ice, 66).

Sensitive people might find the attempt to turn domestic violence into a topic of humor to be patently offensive, while David Sedaris’s defenders might point out the story’s narrative arc includes a murder and a slur or pun on non-native English. The parade of offensive cliches and sharp, horrific imagery might cause some readers to speculate that Sedaris’s work is comedy-horror, perhaps of the same vein that has the murderous Freddie Krueger make puns as he kills his latest teen-scream crew. Sedaris’s horror seems to be daily life, and his hell is other people. His Bookreporter essay admits that “I’m not the sort of person who goes around feeling good about himself”, and while that may give the psychological reason for his cruel views, that he is popular says that his sentiment is shared by an audience.

Holidays on Ice is not limited to Christmas alone in topic. Perhaps the clearest example of the type of humor Sedaris seeks is in “Us and Them”, a Halloween holiday narrative. The protagonist is a child who, when asked to share his candy, “I tore off the wrappers and began cramming candy bars into my mouth…my mouth expelled chocolate, chewed chocolate, which fell onto the sleeve of her sweater” (138-139). The protagonist then decides to “shift gears and find pleasure in hating them” (140), which seems to be the underlying thesis of his work overall, except that Sedaris himself admits that hate-slinging was a child’s decision and proposes:

The only alternative was to do as my mother had instructed and take a good look at myself. This was an old trick, designed to turn one’s hatred inward and while I was determined not to fall for it, it was hard to shake the mental picture snapped by her suggestion: here is a boy sitting on a bed, his mouth smeared with chocolate. He’s a human being, but he’s also a pig, surrounded by trash and gorging himself so that others may be denied (140).

Although this exterior perception of himself as eternal protagonist does not seem to occur often in David Sedaris’s work, it might be a clue to his true target—the pig who denies, the person who laughs most loudly at the misfortunes of those he perceives as somehow lesser than himself, the person who enjoys cruelty, or is comfortable with micro-aggressions. If there’s any didactic merit to this collection, it is as a gift to the hardhearted in some attempt at inducing a smidge of maybe better manners. Sedaris targets the oppressed in a culture where the peak of the bell curve is cruelty. What is oddly remarkable in this text is that despite the text’s endless battering of a prosaic hellscape, it predates our modern calamities rather thoroughly and seems oddly sepia-toned—the events are from the last century, and certain cultural details now seem quaint. For the host with a wide sweet tooth for nostalgia, and the emotional brutality that usually is the dark face of such sentimentality, Sedaris’s book ought to be your go-to gift.

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