Christmas ain't all it's cracked up to be. Perhaps that's not news to the 33 million of us who wait until December 20 to start gift-shopping, or to those who'd rather punch an elf than shudder through one more rendition of "Winter Wonderland." Yet culturally, economically, and spiritually, Christmas remains our most important holiday. We just can't help humming along as each treacly carol begins.
Washington Post reporter Hank Stuever couldn't resist that urge either—but he was humming through clenched teeth. Indeed, he had gotten perhaps too much in touch with his inner grinch, always ceding the merry-making to others. So Stuever resolved to find out what it means to really celebrate Christmas in the United States of the 21st-century. For three holiday seasons (from 2006 to 2008) he shadowed three unrelated families in Frisco, Texas—an exurban everyplace outside Dallas that overflows with big-box stores, houses with two-lawyer foyers, and streets named Headquarters Drive or Internet Boulevard.
"I stepped deliberately into the family-centric, reindeer-sweater-wearing Yule of Baby Jesus," Stuever writes in Tinsel, "in the newest and most homogenous America, seeking whatever Christmas was left in me by venturing to a place that appeared to have plenty of Christmas to spare." But, he cautions us at the outset, he "wasn't that kind of believer . . . [and] this is probably not that kind of Christmas book." In other words, Stuever stays cynically clear-eyed even as everyone around him gets swept up in holiday hoopla.
"Fake is okay here," notes 44-year-old Tammie Parnell, the wife and mother in one of the families Stuever follows. Parnell runs a business decorating other people’s houses for the holidays, using what Stuever terms "Things Not in Nature." For a fee that includes parts and labor, Parnell relieves the pressure women feel to create the ultimate Christmas fantasy. At one point she asks Stuever to explain the war in Iraq, but their conversations more typically center on where to place child-size angels in clients' McMansions. Indeed, Parnell spends so much time outside her house that she frets she'll be unable to give her own family the perfect Christmas she sells.
Parnell lets Stuever in on the "kountry" phenomenon: a refashioning of rustic, rural America for today. A John Deere T-shirt might be country, especially if it has holes and authentic sweat stains, but a T-shirt that reads WHAT HAPPENS AT MEEMAW'S HOUSE STAYS AT MEEMAW'S HOUSE is totally kountry. Teensy snow villages with even tinier trees are likewise kountry—and, with $500 million in 2006 sales, extraordinarily popular, too. The collection of Bridgette Trykoski, the contentedly childfree wife in the second family Stuever hangs out with, includes a riverboat casino and a NASCAR café.
Stuever sees the 30-something Trykoskis as emblems of a uniquely American, holiday-induced desire for spectacle: Asked why he adorns his house each December with 75,000 computer-controlled Christmas lights blinking in tempo to a song by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jeff Trykoski says that's "what Christmas is all about." Yet apparently Christmas is also all about YouTube hits and "drive-bys"—people who cruise past the Trykoski residence to ogle the extravaganza each season—because Jeff tracks the growing numbers of both (and maintains a website).
Like Tammie Parnell and Jeff Trykoski, Caroll Cavazos has a narrative in mind about the significance of Christmas, but hers directly involves Jesus. The 49-year-old single mother belongs to a megachurch headed by a type of pastor Stuever nicknames "Reverend True Religion Jeans," who preaches "prosperity theology" (the notion that success is mainly a matter of attitude—and, of course, belief). Even after giving a hefty percentage of her income to the church ("first fruits"), Cavazos has managed to pay off her mortgage. She budgets for gifts year-round, and pays her holiday-related bills in full come January. ThoughTinsel lacks an explicit narrative arc—the 2007–2008 recession comes closest to providing one—the most emotionally arresting events in the book happen to Cavazos.
Attending a megachurch service with Cavazos, Stuever becomes fascinated with the Angel Tree, an imitation pine festooned with Christmas wishes from the town's neediest. Acting as an angel himself, Stuever plucks four wishes from the branches, each scrap of paper conveying only rudimentary information about the wish-maker: "18, M, Gift certificate for shoes" or "13, F, Gift certificate for J. C. Penney."
Inspired, Stuever spends a few days helping out at Frisco Family Services Center, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the Angel Tree and puts them up all over town. (The group is devoted to helping those suffering from hunger, homelessness, or poverty.) This social-service interlude provides a welcome antidote to the profligacy the author details elsewhere in Tinsel. It also enables him to plumb the astonishing depths of our yearning to imbue Christmas with non-material significance. To ease our guilt about giving one another so many gifts, we gobble up information about the needy, conveniently published in newspapers or broadcast over the airwaves; reminding ourselves of their plights becomes an essential rite of our annual revelry. Stuever is on to something here, no matter how it discomfits us; we need the needy around the holidays to assuage our culpability, he brazenly points out, but the neediest among us go without life's essentials all year-round, not just at holiday time.
Whether or not readers see themselves reflected in the Friscoites Stuever profiles doesn't much matter at the close of Tinsel. Nor does it matter that the author neglects to spend more than a page or two on anyone truly struggling with poverty in a season of plenty. We all tell ourselves stories about Christmas. And, to varying degrees, we all believe at least some of the stories we've heard about what Christmas was like back then—or could be like today, if only we could find the right gifts for our families or buy the perfect ornament for our trees, just in from China and on sale at our local Razzl Dazzl.
For all its joy and sorrow, expectation and letdown, opting out of this particular holiday is an unappealing option: "If enough American consumers cut their holiday spending even by half," writes Stuever, “the consequences to our way of life would be a disastrous chain reaction of job losses… [T]he effect of such a holiday could truly transport us back into the very world of the Depression-era American Girl dolls we so envy for their make-do sincerity." Plus we don't dare disillusion the pint-size consumers who sit on Santa's lap and ask for the latest iPhone.
So clench your teeth, and sing along: "Sleigh bells ring, are you listenin'..."?
Though Jessica Allen works as a writer and editor in New York City, she will celebrate this Christmas in Indiana. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The Forward, and The Onion A. V. Club.