It's become a Christmas tradition ("Christmas tradition," of course, is just a venerable name we use to describe "clichés that get regurgitated every December") to complain about the commercialization of Christmas. The modern-day Christmas narrative—from door-busting on Black Friday all the way to some cozy realization that family is the only thing that really matters on Christmas Day—is about the rejection of materialism after a rampant orgy of retail therapy.
Journalist Hank Stuever's new book, Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present, goes a long way toward dismantling those tired ideas. For three consecutive Christmases, Stuever camped out in the upper-middle-class suburban Texas town of Frisco and observed the excess and materialism that unfolds at Christmastime in Frisco's malls, churches, and homes. Stuever follows several Frisco residents—most satisfyingly, a man whose exorbitant Christmas decorations have turned him into a minor television celebrity and a woman who gets paid $150 an hour to decorate other people's mansions. He doesn't embrace the traditional narrative:
In Christmas movies, the mall mayhem triggers the protagonist's profound insight that none of it matters so much as love, and love is never found in a crowded mall in December.
I don't quite buy that.
Stuever acknowledges that not only would our economy flatline if everybody had an antimaterialist epiphany, but Christmas at the mall fulfills our emotional needs, too. The pagans whose celebrations preceded Christianity understood that "December's darkest days were always about consuming, feasting, reveling, and bingeing." He wallows in the kitsch of the holiday, embracing homemade Christmas YouTube videos and savoring every campy detail of the local megachurch's religious celebrations (one pastor writes a series of James Bond–themed sermons: "In His Secret Servant-Leadership," "The Living Daylight Saving Time," and "The Spouse Who Loved Me").
The lack of scorn Stuever shows as he follows the Texans through their yearly rituals is remarkable. He finds the humanity in each of them. Tammie, the house decorator, has her moment of weird yuletide dignity:
Even with the Christmas music on, Tammie gets lonely in these monster houses. She talks to the elves and snowmen and Santas. She calls them "fella" and "mister" and "big boys" and "bad boys." "You, mister, are going right here," she'll say to a snowman on a console table in the entry hall, and then pick up a porcelain Santa. "Okay, big boy, where are you going?" She carries on entire conversations with the pieces of a Nativity scene. "You are such a good mother," she'll tell the Virgin Mary.
Tinsel is well-written journalism about unexceptional people doing (for the most part) unexceptional things, but Stuever's generosity finds the extraordinary everywhere.
Hank Stuever reads from Tinsel on Mon Dec 7, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7 pm, free.