This Book Will Change Your Entire Holiday Season For The Better

Photo: Courtesy of Universal.
When my parents packed up and left India in the ‘70s, they knew nothing of Christmas or Santa or mass year-end spending. But, as with so much of American culture, they cherry-picked the parts they liked and incorporated them into our family life. For Christmas, that meant a fake plastic tree beloved for nearly three decades, a gift exchange, a coma-inducing meal, and of course, the myth that an old white dude comes shimmying down the chimney to make all the magic happen.

My folks knew that celebrating Christmas was a big part of American culture, and my brother and I were American kids. And it was fun! Who doesn’t love ripping open presents and binge eating? It didn’t matter that none of us believed in Jesus; belief in Santa was a rite of passage that my parents didn’t want us to miss. One year, my dad even donned a St. Nick costume for me and my cousins, but the tell was obvious (“Santa is white, Dad!”).

Now, when drugstores flood the aisles with tacky decor the morning after Halloween, and canned holiday music pours from every storefront, I roll my eyes and turn up the volume on my headphones.

It’s not that I’m nostalgic for some less-commercialized Christmas past — for my family, it’s always been about the shopping and the shiny objects. But since I'm in the first generation of my family to celebrate Christmas, shrugging off the whole thing can be mighty tempting. Celebrating the holiday made sense when my brother and I were kids, but it’s not like we’re carrying on some long tradition — couldn’t we just drop it? The closest we get to church is the altar of Amazon Prime.

But when a recent date mentioned a book he often rereads around the holidays to get into the spirit, I was intrigued. He didn’t strike me as the Christmas-loving type (his beard is more Bushwick than North Pole), so I figured maybe he was onto something. Plus, it was a good date (we effortlessly tumbled into that conversation about books), and I wanted to know everything about him.

So, I ordered my own copy of Hank Stuever’s Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present. When it arrived, I texted my crush a picture. “Oooh your cover is different than mine!” he replied. It was bringing us closer together already.
Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books.
Here’s the lowdown on the book: Stuever, a writer for The Washington Post, embedded himself in the modestly affluent Dallas suburb of Frisco, TX — what he calls a “shopping-center town.” He was there for the fall and winter of 2006, a final boom year before the big bust, and for two years after that. His mission: “I stepped deliberately into the family-centric, reindeer-sweater-wearing Yule of Baby Jesus, 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.” So far, I’m terrified, but at least he’s got a sense of humor.

Stuever followed three sets of folks through the holiday frenzy — including Jeff and Bridgette, a young couple whose massive illuminated front-yard display draws a line of cars around the block, and Caroll, a divorced single mom who counts Black Friday among her favorite days and helps out with A/V at the local mega-church. But my favorite is Tammie, a jovial steamroller of a woman with a gracious twang and a brunette bob. She runs her own business festooning neighborhood homes with Christmas trappings. Her two favorite words are “absolutely” and “phenomenal.” “Think of Holly Hunter cast as a country-club homemaker,” Stuever writes.

He goes in skeptical. But he approaches his subjects with the genuine curiosity and open mind of a journalist-cum-anthropologist. His portraits of them are both colorful and loving in a way that reminded me of David Sedaris' writing. Between trailing Tammie around a massive decor trade show where she encounters an inanimate Santa helper she can't resist (“‘Oh, he’s a bad boy,’ she says, lifting the elf up. ‘Oh, I can use him. What do you think?... Is it too-too?’”) and shadowing Caroll on her pageant PA duties, Stuever offers a play-by-play look at what Christmas means to some of its biggest fans.

So, did the book break through and thaw out my cold Scrooge heart? Admittedly, Stuever himself doesn’t come away with a born-again belief in the magic of Christmas, secular or otherwise. But his search helped me realize — perhaps for the first time — why my family chose to grab onto parts of the holiday that have nothing to do with the “Yule of Baby Jesus,” and why we still hold onto them today.

You may not recognize yourself in most of Tinsel’s characters (though one can only hope there’s a bit of Tammie Parnell in all of us). But I venture to say you’d be hard-pressed to put this book down, crawl back into your Grinch cave, and glower at the warm-hearted Whos.
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Photo: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Below, I present five convincing reasons not to give up on the holiday, courtesy of Tinsel.

It makes everyone feel young again. Not that I need an excuse to don an adult onesie with footies, but I am always glad to have one. Quoting Caroll, Stuever writes, "'Christmas, I think, is the only thing where I'm always sure the glass is half-full,' she tells me. 'I am still like a kid about it, with wide eyes… I think it was the only time I was allowed to really be a kid.'"

It offers perspective.
"Our sense of Christmas is nothing without the narrative of heartbreaking need…” Stuever writes. “This need for need exists so that our children can distinguish it from the concept of want." So, the next time you hear someone start a food order with “I need” or “gimme,” you’ll know your side-eye is justified. Also, Christmas is a great time to volunteer to help those actually in need.

It gives our lives individual meaning.
“In some houses, the client has pieces that she won’t let Tammie dismiss…” Stuever writes. “‘I never force it,’ Tammie says. ‘You always have to work with it, because Christmas is really about those special things that we want around us, that are special only to us.” It’s nice to know that Tammie wouldn’t judge me for my personal taste in lawn elves.

It brings people together.
“Real lives are being lived here," Stuever writes. "People are shopping, but they are also falling in love, or kissing a child. They are sharing in a perception of glittery wealth… In this carbed-out consumerismo are places and moments of true bonding, places to be seen and to see others, to simply exist.” I knew my mall-rat days were among my finest!

This party’s been going on since long
before Jesus. It’s comforting to know that my annual post-holiday rampage through the Banana Republic sale is rooted in history, according to Stuever: "December's darkest days were always about consuming, feasting, revelling, and bingeing. Seen this way, our shop-till-you-drop impulse at the end of the calendar year is an ancient part of who we are. The shopping — the modern equivalent of harvesting and feasting — is perhaps more historically appropriate than the praying and the believing."
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