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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.

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.

Q. Speaking of manufactured Christmas products, one phrase is repeated over and over in the book: “Fake is OK here.” Is it?

A. I think it is. For Americans to really submit to Christmas, you have to get into the artifice of it. If you want to have the perfectly decorated suburban house, you probably don’t have a real tree or real greenery; it’s easier to have pre-lit greenery and trees. You may have those little porcelain snow towns that depict worlds that never existed, like Dickensian villages and Bedford Falls. At Christmas, you have to submit to a series of myths.

Q. Myths?

A. You have this idea that we’re all going to be happy on Dec. 25, that we’re all going to be together, the family drunk is going to be sober, that old sorts of resentments and difficult relationships in families are going to be set aside for the day, that the world is going to be at peace. So if you’re really going to fall in love with Christmas, you have to fall in love with the biggest shadow game we got going—that the world for one day is all wonderful and all hopeful.

Q. Why do we put ourselves through it all?

A. We’re making the moments of our lives. That’s why we so obsessively photograph and videotape Christmas. Like Tammie, we’re all hoping for what she calls the “total moment,” when everything comes together in a big way. And some people go to extremes to find that.

Q. What do we really need from this holiday underneath the decorations and the presents and the shopping lists and angst?

A. We hope that somewhere in all of the family BS is a reminder that we’re loved. There’s a strong desire to connect with humans and know that we’re not alone. For Christians, it’s the story of a savior coming to tell us we’re loved. But everyone at Christmas needs a reminder that there’s love.

Carol Kaufmann is a contributing editor for the AARP Bulletin.

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