By The Editors
‘Tis the season to be cynical… but maybe what we really need is a reason to believe.
Most of you have probably heard or read “Santaland Diaries,” the famous essay by monologist David Sedaris, originally aired on NPR in the early ‘90s and subsequently adapted for stage as a one-man play by director Joseph Mantello. The holiday season staple—an Asheville perennial for 15 years now, it’s slated to be performed December 14-18 at 35below by Asheville Community Theatre—is typically described thusly: “When an out of work slacker [a 33-year-old Sedaris] takes a job as an elf in Macy’s Santaland, his hilarious observations of the shoppers and employees are much more naughty than nice.”
Indeed—Sedaris’ elf, dubbed Crumpet, endures numerous indignities, from tantrum-throwing kids with their codependent parents, and moody method-acting Santas who don’t think their “role” is properly appreciated, to randy adult women insisting that they also get to sit on Santa’s lap, and unreconstructed rednecks who observe, unasked, that he “looks so stupid” in his green velvet outfit.
Initially, Sedaris insisted that “Santaland Diaries” was autobiographical. Sometime later, fact-checkers determined that he’d clearly spun some of his anecdotes in the service of entertainment, and although this didn’t take away from any of the piece’s humor, it’s now conceded to be, for the most part, a work of fiction. Still, the genie was out of the bottle, meaning that any parent who has ever taken a child to the mall to see Santa has probably wondered just what those fat, jolly, bearded men in red suits and their gaily-attired helpers are saying about them and their children behind their backs. (Bonus points if you’ve ever tried to second-guess what that greedy little brat at the front of the line is asking Santa to bring him, and whether or not Mommy and Daddy, standing impatiently off to the side, are actually going to get it for him.)
Well, there’s really only one logical conclusion to all this: Let’s ask Santa ourselves. We reasoned that, even if Sedaris was exaggerating parts of his brief career as a Christmas elf for comedic impact, there had to be more than just a kernel of truth in his tale; the odds are simply too great, considering the sheer number of kids and parents who visit Santa every year. Conversely, aside from the potential for misbehavior, surely there are also those instances of pathos guaranteed to tug at one’s heartstrings—the child who asks Santa to bring peace to the Middle East, for example, or one who simply wants Santa to get his divorcing parents back together.
So we went out and found a Santa.
Meet Rodney Smith, 50, who lives with his wife in Mountain Home (near Asheville, in Henderson County) and has six grown kids, as well as three grandchildren. Smith works at Kimberly-Clark Corporation in Hendersonville and is also a volunteer firefighter with Mountain Home Fire & Rescue. He has been putting on his Santa suit for the past 10 years, so he’s clearly been in the game long enough to have an insider’s perspective.
Alas, it turns out that Sedaris probably was exaggerating more than just a little, because Smith reports that his experiences in Santaland, aside from the occasional tiny tyke being frightened by this big man with the big beard, have been uniformly positive…
On how he came to play Santa in the first place, and what training or background, if any, he had:
I’ve only done this for my work’s Christmas parties for kids. They were asking for volunteers at work, and I thought it would be fun just to try it once. No training, I just winged it, and now it’s continued to be an annual event. It’s the Kimberly-Clark kids’ Christmas party at Fun Depot—I have also played Santa once at the fire department kids’ Christmas party in Mountain Home.
On his “method” for preparing for the Santa “role”:
I just have the suit, with a wig and a beard. No physical resemblance—my own kids and grandkids have seen me [in character] and recognized me. And no props like elves or reindeer, just a chair at Fun Depot with a big bag of candy.
On that first time he played Santa and other memorable moments:
For the first time, my hat kept falling off, and the kids were always pulling at the beard. Sometimes there are brothers and sisters arguing about who’s going first or last. And some kids are scared of Santa. There was a small kid one time, only about one year old, and he just looked at me, and his eyes seemed to get bigger and bigger. All of a sudden he just started screaming! Some “moms” like sitting on Santa’s lap also…
On what the children actually ask Santa to bring them:
Some kids ask for money. Some have asked for gifts for their siblings. Others asked for snow for Christmas. A lot of video stuff, games and things. Some have cried, and some have also run away when they saw me.
On the most gratifying aspect about playing Santa:
Just listening to the kids talk about what they would like to have, and asking them if they have been bad or good—their parents will be standing there, looking at them to see what they say!
On advice he’d give to anyone planning on playing Santa this year:
Just enjoy what you’re doing, and treat all the kids the same. It’s so interesting to hear some of the stories some kids will tell you that have nothing to do with Christmas.
After interviewing Smith and considering what a positive outlook the gentleman displays, we came to an inevitable conclusion: We’ve become awfully cynical with age, as regards certain holiday traditions, and Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” has undoubtedly contributed to that cynicism. We even found ourselves asking Smith if he had ever witnessed the proverbial “bad Santa” a la Billy Bob Thornton’s boozing conman character in the cult film of the same name. (Smith’s answer was a firm, “No.”) But this is Christmastime—why on earth would anyone want to believe the worst in people, or look for the darkest linings, during this time of year? That said, 2016 has been such a long, protracted study in negativity, thereby upping the ante for cynics everywhere, you can’t really blame them.
So allow us to thank you, Rodney Smith, for helping restore our faith in the essential goodness of people. We can only hope that your attitude rubs off on some of those kids who sit in your lap and look up at you and yank on your beard. (Their parents, too.) How does that saying go? Oh yeah… Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—and he lives in Mountain Home, North Carolina.
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