In a dark moment I would describe many of the people in Hank Stuever’s wonderful new book as awful, and maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but certainly they’re my opposite in every way — George Bush-lovin’, Jesus-worshipin’, Red State-occupyin’, exurbia-residin’ Texans. They say tomayta, I say tomahta. And so on. They belong to churches with horrible names like Celebration Covenant, where the sermons come with James Bond themes (“Church Royale 2007”). Their parties for friends require chocolate fountains. Their home decorations make Clark Griswold look Amish. They’ve lost the thread of the Iraq war, and ask what’s going on there now, but lose interest in the answer if it can’t be summed up on a bumper sticker. They’re the sort of people who swallow a radio station’s schmaltzy “Christmas Wish” sermonettes whole, and repay it with happy tears.
And yet Stuever, a Washington Post reporter with whom I likely have a great deal more in common, embedded with these folks for an entire Christmas season (2006), returning for parts of two more, and somehow came to love them. He is a far better person than me, and certainly a more skillful journalist, because the book that came out of this experience — “Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present” — pulls off a neat trick, revealing every detail about the way three separate families (and many others) celebrate the holiday, without coming off as jeering or judgmental in any way. Stuever climbed every ladder with Tammie Parnell, an affluent mom with a seasonal business decorating others’ McMansions; he stood in Black Friday queues with Caroll Cavasos, a single mother with too much on her plate but a certain fragile optimism that Jesus is watching over her; and he served as official observer to the assemblage of Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski’s jaw-dropping, computer-controlled, music-synchronized Christmas light display, as well as the birth of Jeff’s consulting business as a holiday lighting engineer.
You didn’t know there was such a niche in the working world? You’ve not been to Frisco, Texas, on the far-flung outer ring of Dallas-Fort Worth exurbia, where everything is new and newer and the discovery of a couple of inconvenient pioneer graves in the route of a new highway can barely slow the work down, let alone stop it. Or maybe you have, because there’s a Frisco everywhere, even in down-and-out states like Ohio or Michigan, spreading like kudzu, high-end malls popping up to serve the residents of all those 6,000-square-foot houses, along with megachurches and fast-casual taco restaurants, big-box stores and the usual accoutrements of affluent-white-folks culture.
They keep Christmas in their hearts in places like this, or at least a version of it, simultaneously over-the-top consumerist and “Christ-centered,” and if you can’t quite reconcile piles and piles of presents under the tree with the story of a humble woman giving birth in a barn, well, then you’ve never stood in the clearinghouse for the Angel Tree effort, which seeks to make Christmas merry for the down-and-out, only even these down-and-out Christmases are oddly upscale, Hefty bags full of gifts bestowed upon people who say, “It’s too much” and mean it literally — one recipient gets enough excess to regift it to the even more impoverished. Tammie Parnell finds Christmas in her heart by decorating the home of a friend dying of cancer. Free of charge, of course, although after she’s finished, she never visits the friend again, and when the woman dies six weeks or so later, she consoles herself by telling a friend who helped, “We totally decorated her house! We brought her so much joy.”
Parnell was my least favorite Tinselite, even while it’s clear she and Hank clicked as they decorated all those houses. That’s another paradox of upper-middle-class Christmas, outsourcing the hall-decking, but never mind that. Parnell has the eye and her clients don’t have the time, so let’s let her earn a tidy sum knocking herself out two months out of the year. But I cannot tell a lie: There’s a scene deep into the narrative, where Parnell goes searching for her “total moment” — that more-perfect-than-perfect holiday snapshot that children remember forever — and brings in a $150-an-hour fellow holiday entrepreneur named Cookie the Elf. This moment will leave you either helpless with laughter or sneering in contempt, and maybe both. It’s like this woman watched “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and came away with the idea the Griswold holiday would have been so much better if Cousin Eddie and his family had just stayed home.
But probably you would end up liking her, because Stuever likes her, and Stuever makes her likable. She’s not a bad person, just one who has swallowed Christmas hook, line and tinsel. I think I chose her to channel my displeasure with a culture that never met a moral dilemma or conundrum that couldn’t be explained by an uplifting movie or self-help book (you want to know who buys Mitch Albom’s books? Umm…), that ultimately deals with the uncomfortable or painful by turning away. My heart did soften late in the narrative, when Caroll Cavasos suffers a personal tragedy and keeps her heart open and loving throughout. And it’s hard not to like the Trykoskis, cheerfully childless and still willing to turn their home into an experiment in how much a home electrical grid can bear, mainly for the intellectual challenge of its design.
But it’s very easy to like “Tinsel,” and on behalf of the poor newspaper reporter who could use a fallback for the coming newspocalypse, I beseech you: Buy! You can always give it away for Christmas.
Full disclosure: Hank and I are friends-who-have-never-met, he comments here on occasion, and yours truly is mentioned favorably on page 181. Not that such shameless flattery would ever sway my critical opinion, of course. Oh, and to the FTC: I got an advance reader’s copy free of charge.
Buy the book via my Amazon store, making the cycle of kickbacks and corruption complete.
Hank talks a little about the project:
The Trykoski house in (I believe) 2005: