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A Special Gift

The Author Speaks: Christmas—America’s Most Chaotic, Expensive, Anxiety-Ridden and Occasionally Joyful Event

Interview with Hank Stuever, author of Tinsel: The Search for America’s Christmas Present.

Q. And whether or not there’s a recession?

A. The interesting thing in a world like Frisco, whether times are good or bad, no matter what is happening, problems are always somebody else’s issue. Nobody there felt like they had a problem with shopping. Everybody there talks about the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing but they themselves never were the Joneses nor the people doing the keeping up. And there’s still a dead-heat competition there to try to have the perfect Christmas.

Q. To the point where people are willing to pay someone else to decorate their house for the holidays?

A. Christmas is a huge burden. And it generally falls to Mom. Ever since queen Victoria put up her own Christmas tree and there were pictures of it in American magazines 150 years ago, women have felt the heat to have the perfect-looking house, set the perfect table, make the house cozy and warm, make sure everyone is happy. At some point the women of Dallas said, well, write a check.

Q. To manufacture their Christmas?

A. You know, Tammie’s clients write her letters, very often saying, “You’ve made Christmas sane in our house because we usually have meltdowns.” It would be nice to come home and have everything done. It may be artificial because you didn’t put it up yourself, but I guarantee you people are past that.

Q. Christmas in Frisco—and in many places—also includes the house that’s so lit up, you could see it from space. Why does Jeff put up all those lights?

A. He explained it to me: “We live in this tradition-less city that sprang up overnight and wanted to have something that people can count on every year around Christmas.” He’s a high-tech nerdy guy by day, but this light thing really turns him into a local rock star.

Q. Why do people love to come see crazy Christmas lights?

A. I think there’s an innate need in people to be pilgrims. Jeff’s house is a pure expression of secular joy, but going to see Jeff’s house and waiting in traffic for an hour feels like a religious thing to people in that town. Usually there were six or 10 people piled into one SUV, often three different generations of a family. It’s as much about the sitting there as anything. It’s forced togetherness.

Q. How do different generations keep Christmas?

A. All the older people still really romanticized Christmases they had, when the holiday didn’t start until after Thanksgiving. Everyone else wants the Christmases that Grandma and Grandpa had, but they don’t want to give up the iPod nano and the 52-inch Samsung flat screen.

Q. Maybe our grandparents’ Christmases become part of our myth?

A. People love those stories where Grandma will tell you how she used to get oranges and pecans in her stocking and one present, like a doll, and that’s it. People love, love, love listening to those stories.

Q. But the reality for younger generations …

A. … is Black Friday. It’s an elaborate list of things I want and here are the URL links to the Amazon page so you can buy it for me. Or better yet, I’d like a gift card.

Q. How does this go over with grandparents?

A. They’re of two minds. Some really struggle with the idea that all their grandkids want are more opportunities to go to the mall. Others think the gift cards are great and easy and were in the mall as much as their grandkids.

Q. Will this year’s holiday frenzy help our economic big picture?

A. Any tiny percentage of gain is going to be seen as a victory because last year was devastating. Retailers were profoundly shocked last year when for the first time since statistics have been kept, Christmas spending went down. Way down. It was so profound that within weeks of America’s bummer Christmas, people living in Guangdong, China, where all the toy and Christmas tree factories are, moved back to their farms in the mountains. Globally, there’s been a massive slowdown in just Christmas products.

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