Review: Tinsel

By | January 18, 2014
Oh, and PS: I’d like to acknowledge the global economy, especially the credit and retail sectors, which fell apart between 2006 and 2008 and thereby made profligate Christmas shopping seem all the more interesting and a bit more inane. Here’s to you, capitalism
Those were actually the very last two sentences Hank Stuever wrote in Tinsel, but in a sense, they were this book. According to my Amazon wishlist when I spotted this on a price drop around Christmas, I had it on my wishlist since its publication in 2009. So of course I had to start it immediately after two false starts on books to finish out 2013: Rogues Gallery and Do You Speak Shoe Lover?

I have an odd relationship with Christmas. Christmas in our house looks a lot like Thanksgiving, just with more presents. But I hate shopping. HATE. Yet somehow, I was drawn to this book. To the author’s writing. To the people he met. After finishing the book. it was a pleasant surprise to find the photos of the people he spent Christmas with. I was way off in my mental images, but it was nice to put faces to the names.

Speaking of names, I find it amazing and generous how these folks welcomed him into their homes and their lives. While Stuever wrote at length about the growth of Frisco, it’s still very much Smalltown, USA in that respect. He came to know these people, their families, their friends. He nearly became one of them.
I read this over the course of three weeks, but if I had enough time, I’d probably have read it within a few days as it really grabbed me toward the end. It was an interesting mix of christmas, Christmas, people and shopping. I also think that pretty much describes American christmas in a nutshell these days.
Christmas is the single largest event in American communal life, intersecting with every aspect of religion, culture, commerce, and politics. From mid-November to New Year’s Eve 2006, shoppers spent almost half a trillion dollars on gifts, which is more than we spend on almost anything else as a people, including the annual bill at that time for ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For those who opt in, Christmas is supposed to exist as a pure moment of bliss and togetherness. We spend more money than we have at Christmas in part to get closer to the simple joy it advertises.

I actually found this — which was his premise throughout the book to be fascinating. What is christmas these days. Is it spending money to be happy? Is it about the holiday (pagan or christian?) is it about family

I went looking for an America living not only on borrowed time, but also on borrowed grace. In the Nativity pageant I’ve staged here, I cast myself merely as an extra, a Wise Man in a purple velour bathrobe and a cardboard Burger King crown, following yonder star, bearing my mother’s crystal salad-dressing cruets (my frankincense, my myrrh) on a tasseled living room throw pillow.

In addition to looking for “Christmas”, I think the author had more than a little quest to look for “America”. Frisco, TX, land of the McMansions isn’t America any more than Jesus is the Reason for the Season describes the true American Christmas, but the author did well to try and tie both extremes together. Of those people he met: Carroll the shopaholic tither and her family, Tammie and her Hottie Elves and the Trykoskis and their lights, it was the Trykoskis I liked the most because they seemed to show me more about what Christmas is. I didn’t like Carroll and her family — although I felt them to be a good example of Shop ’til You Drop Spoiled America. Sure, Tammie decorated clients’ houses for Christmas – but that didn’t make her Santa any more than a normal interior designer. Jeff T was paid for his work in Frisco Square, but he did his own house – and the city – out of his own interest and passion.

The Christmas lifestyle as most Americans know and celebrate it is only about a century and a half old, a straight line from Charles Dickens to Martha Stewart.

I had to chuckle at this — because the Christmas that the author found in Frisco isn’t the Christmas I’ve seen in the Northeast. Multiple themed trees? Prelit trees? Worrying about whether a neighbor’s house and Christmas is “Christ-centered”? Never mind Frisco’s obsession with Snow Powder and the Israelis who sell it.
“On Dasher, on Dancer, on Master, on Visa.”

THANKSGIVING….It conveys a sense of national togetherness, pride, gluttonous helpings of iconic food items, and the moments we take to consider our blessings. Then all hell breaks loose.

Now that? That’s the American Christmas I know. I like how he used his journalistic background to mix in reporting with his story telling. The facts he reported on retail figures, economic growth and contraction, the history of Christmas (more Halloween then Jesus) and suburb development provided a nice back drop to the people without taking away from them. It made for substance to go with the fluff.The same could be said for the religious aspects that he discussed. While an American christmas can be religion fee, I’m not sure the same could be said for a Texas Christmas. All in all, a very good read even if it slowed down at parts. I look forward to reading his other book, Off Ramp, as I like his style and find him very readable. Also, his NPR interview about the book is a fun read. Not sure what my next book of 2014 will be. Yet.

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