Literary Death Match event. I was already intrigued by the premise of the book, but after hearing a portion of the tale of Tammie, an enthusiastic woman in Frisco, Texas who charges to decorate other people's homes, it was a definite addition to my to-read list.
Shortly before Christmas my local library tracked a copy down and I enthusiastically dived in. This Christmas, the same thing happened. Next Christmas I expect it will happen again, although this time I think I'll purchase the book rather than borrow it (if you read something three times, you should probably be allowed to keep it on your home shelves.). I toyed with writing something about the book last year, but Christmas business intruded and another year passed. Now, with two readings under my belt and a little bit of time, I feel better equipped to recount to you why I was so taken with this book.
It's not just that Stuever is a world-class journalist (he's the current TV critic at the Washington Post, where he writes brilliantly and hilariously), or that he managed to do the reporting for this book right at the tail end of the last economic comfort most of us can remember. Tinsel is the first piece of Christmas reading I've ever done that tackles every aspect of the holiday - the commercial, the spiritual, the social and the familial - without a hint of cynicism. It was clearly difficult at times for Stuever to immerse himself in the lives of the people of this book, many of whom he seems to have little in common with, and be away from his own loved ones for months at time and during the holiday season. He alludes with characteristic wit to the fact that he's a member of the fabled and dreaded East Coast Liberal Media Elite plopping himself smack in the middle of a Red State boom town. Yet the perspective he achieves throughout Tinsel is one of warmth, sincerity and good humor.
Though he does not promise any solution to the question, Tinsel is Stuever's "Search for America's Christmas Present," a quest to discover where we are now culturally, financially and even spiritually in modern Christmas. To that end he attempts to cover everything from decorations to shopping to belief (or lack of belief) in Santa Claus. He chooses Frisco, TX (which in 2006, when he begins, was enjoying a period of immense prosperity) as his testing ground and hones in on three particular families. Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski (mostly Jeff) are responsible for this utterly gobsmacking light display each year. Caroll Cavazos is a single mother who embraces her children and her faith every Christmas. And Tammie Parnell is a work for hire decorator who juggles a hefty workload of decking halls with making Christmas special for her own family.
Stuever tails each of these families with equal enthusiasm. He hangs out in Black Friday early bird shopping lines with Caroll and her daughter Marissa. He helps to decorate the Trykoski house. He acts as Tammie's "efl" as she visit house after cookie cutter house, placing gold cones on mantles and wrapping garlands around banisters. In between he peppers his text with bits of Christmas history, notable monetary facts about the shopping season and bits of Christmas pop culture that add depth and brightness to the holiday display he's building.
Every facet of modern Christmas is approached without fear. Stuever writes about the "fake is OK here" mentality of pre-fab shopping centers, franchise eateries and endless malls. He writes about the deep religious fervor of shopping and Christianity with equal weight. He walks the shopping centers, drinks in the bar at Chili's, gives himself over to all things Christmas.
But this book is not about being critical of people who choose to celebrate this way, or any other way. Tinsel is not a search for the "true" Christmas among all the manufactured holiday hooplah drifting through America. This is a search for the truths that are still to be found amid all the overenthusiastic spending, eating and decorating. There are scenes of deep love, conviction, admiration and real power in Tinsel, right next door to scenes of real hilarity, things that resemble the Yuletide farce of films like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Stuever weaves it all together with grace and commanding prose, and in the end Tinsel is not a book about answers, but about the search itself. Every Christmas we search for the perfect one, and as close as we may come we never get there. Tinsel lets us know that Stuever knows how we feel, and if nothing else reading this book every year makes the season a bit brighter.