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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.

It’s here. America is now in full-blown Christmas prep.

We’re ensuring every last elf on our list is gifted appropriately, praying our credit card limit has magically extended. We’re trimming our trees, bannisters, doors and windows with red and green, gold and silver, sometimes blinking. We’re baking our honeyed hams and squishing gumdrops on gingerbread men—and eating way too many of them. We’re overscheduling our e-calendars with family get-togethers, company potlucks, church services, caroling, Angel Tree shopping, mall trips, jaunts to the post office—and more family get-togethers. When Christmas draws closer, we’re up way, way too late wrapping all the presents we’re not sure the recipients even want in the first place. As 2009 draws to a close, we seem to shift into overdrive to squeeze every last bit of energy out of our cells. Just. To. Get. Everything. Done.

And why do we do this—again and again—to ourselves?

It is into this Yuletide frenzy—America’s half-trillion-dollar holiday—that award-winning Washington Post reporter Hank Stuever boldly steps, holding a magnifying glass over what happens to the nation as Dec. 25 approaches. He hoped to chronicle the way people behave in a place with consumerism on display full force. “I wanted the biggest, glitziest, Baby Jesusy Christmas I could find in a setting that’s all mall,” he explains. “Somewhere where everything was brand new.”

He found it in Frisco, Texas. The population of this sleepy farm community turned Dallas exurb exploded from 6,000 to 100,000 over the past 15 years. Along with the people boom came the concrete boom and strip upon strips of malls—seven million square feet of retail space built in the last 10 years. It’s here that, in the name of research, Stuever spent three holiday seasons documenting the grand pageant for his latest book, Tinsel: A Search For America’s Christmas Present.

He tells his Christmas story through three families: There’s Tammie, mother, wife and a big Yule-lover who has a business decorating other people’s houses for the holidays. There’s Caroll, a longtime member of a Texas megachurch and a firm believer in holiday traditions, beginning with the stakeout of Best Buy on Black Friday. Then, there’s Jeff and Bridgette, who own that house, the one where thousands of sparkling lights boogie to Christmas carols.

What happens to us at the end of each year? Stuever discussed Tinsel with the AARP Bulletin while driving down a lonely Texas highway.

Q. The day after Thanksgiving, why do people arise before dawn to camp out in front of Best Buy?

A. It’s a piece of culture that people can participate in. It’s like a running of the bulls. I used to think “I would never do that, I would never be with those crazies.” But my mind changed about this tradition. I realized it’s like going to Woodstock. It’s funny how in such a homogenized world, you can still come up with these traditions and rhythms to life—even in a strip mall.

Q. Did the recession, which happened right in the middle of your reporting, dampen the buying frenzy?

A. Things changed. Last year, people were losing their jobs. In really nice neighborhoods, families were leaving their 3,500-square-foot houses. The number of people using the food bank or receiving Angel Tree charity Christmas presents had tripled. But in a lot of ways, you still feel this intense consumeristic drive.

Q. A great national addiction?

A. That’s why Christmas is so big. Even if you don’t celebrate it, it affects everything—politics, religion, culture. Even if you vow not to go into the mall during Christmas, you find yourself drawn into that place. Christmas comes and gets you. You can be avoiding it, but Christmas will come out to you anyway, whether you’re Christian or not.

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