'Tinsel': Over-The-Top Christmas In Texas

Hank Stuever i i

hide captionColumnist Hank Stuever has twice been a Pulitzer-Prize finalist.

Michael Wichita
Hank Stuever

Columnist Hank Stuever has twice been a Pulitzer-Prize finalist.

Michael Wichita

Hank Stuever, staff writer for the Washington Post, wanted to write a book about Christmas in America with a capital "A."

Tinsel is the story of his journey to Frisco, Texas, where the lights are brighter, the Christmas trees are taller, and the reindeer are faster.

Stuever spent three consecutive Christmas seasons in the Dallas exurb. He visited malls, holiday bazaars and decked-out McMansions, observing how people act at Christmas.

Over the course of his visits, Stuever focused on three families as they shopped, decorated and prayed their way through the over-the-top Christmas season in Frisco.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Christmas in the United States, it's more than a holiday, it's a state of mind, an industry and a whole world way beyond the North Pole. Christmas here comes with animatronic reindeer and pre-lit artificial trees and big boxes from big-box stores, a whole lot of flashing lights and, of course, relentless optimism.

Where is this form of American Christmas the most spectacular? Why, in Texas, of course, where everything is bigger. Hank Stuever crashed the Christmas party by immersing himself in the lives of three families in Frisco, Texas. His new book "Tinsel" explains why Christmas is so bright there, even when times are tough.

Hank Stuever joins me here in a moment. But first, we want to hear from you. Tell us about your most spectacular Christmas display or tradition or moment, and what does it mean to your Christmas? The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Hank Stuever is the author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." He joins me here in Studio 3A. Welcome.

Mr. HANK STUEVER (Author, "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present"): Well, thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: First of all, why Frisco, Texas?

Mr. STUEVER: You know, I started this book in 2006 and I followed three Christmases, 2007, 2008. And early on, I had a weatherman from the - a meteorologist from the National Weather Service draw me a line across the map of the United States. And I said, I really want everything below the line to sort of guarantee me a fake snow Christmas, you know, like some place where people would only yearn for white Christmas. And he said, well, you're in luck, that line is getting higher every year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STUEVER: Of course, we just got a big dump of snow here in Washington...

ROBERTS: Right.

Mr. STUEVER: ...so, you know, might be a little white here. But, you know, I picked Frisco because it has seven million square feet of chain retail shopping. One thing that the Christmas story is in America is an economic story. It's a half-trillion-dollar event in our lives. It steamrolls everything. And so much of our economy literally hangs in the balance based on whether or not people get to the mall and get out their credit card.

So I wanted to go to one of those new fangled 21st century American places that are built around malls and box stores and big houses and big churches and demographics led me to Frisco.

ROBERTS: And why Christmas?

Mr. STUEVER: Christmas intersects everything that means anything to us. It intersects our spiritual lives, our families, our politics and certainly our economy, and our television and our movies and everything that we, you know, think about buying or wish to buy. For six weeks, it sort of holds us in its grip. And it works a number on us. It is mentally fraught, emotionally fraught. And, you know, no one had ever done any journalism on Christmas.

There's a lot of memoir and a lot of fiction and a lot of history, some of it really well-researched and some of it not so researched. But no one had set out to just tell the modern story of the suburban American experience of Christmas and Santa Claus and baby Jesus and shopping and all of that.

ROBERTS: Did you worry that you would be, you know, East Coast media leap flaunting in and poking fun at how people in flyover country go crazy for Christmas?

Mr. STUEVER: I did worry about that, which is why I committed to doing more than one Christmas and to moving there myself. And I also got to draw on my background a little bit. I was born in the Bible Belt. I was born and raised in Oklahoma. These are my people. My memos(ph) and my nanas and all the fabulous old ladies that I've always gravitated to, they control the Christmas of, you know, the American experience of Christmas.

And they are very dear to me, all of these people. I say, these people. These are my people. That doesn't mean I can't make fun of them. In fact, it might make my eye a little more sharp about them. But, no, I never thought about just parachuting in and making fun of them and getting the heck out. I'll be back for two more Christmases.

ROBERTS: Well, among other things, it would have been supremely rude to make fun of them solely because they really welcomed you into their houses and...

Mr. STUEVER: They really did. Yeah, yeah.

ROBERTS: ...and families, I mean, to an amazing degree.

Mr. STUEVER: I mean, imagine - I'm 6"1', I'm 200 pounds. I'm from Washington, D.C. You know, I'm probably your worst nightmare of, you know, left coast media leap. And I show up at your church or at the mall or I meet you in the parking lot at Best Buy on Black Friday and I ask if I can follow you all the way through Christmas.

And what does that mean? You know, well, it means I want to hang out with you when you go grocery shopping or to the mall to church or to your kid's volleyball games. I mean, I really embedded, you know, in - to borrow a phrase from the military journalists, you know, embedded with these families. I was with them all the time and that is a big gift that they gave me was being themselves with a man with a notebook in their house on Christmas Eve, on Christmas morning, you know.

ROBERTS: Well, let's talk about the families for a minute. Let's start with the folks who put on this amazing display, the house that everyone drives by...

Mr. STUEVER: Right.

ROBERTS: ...every Christmas.

Mr. STUEVER: Right.

ROBERTS: And, I mean, I haven't seen it and still pictures don't do it justice because I understand it's all timed with...

Mr. STUEVER: It is. You know, if you go on YouTube to Frisco Christmas, do a search on Frisco and Christmas, you'll find Jeff and Bridgette's house. This is a young couple in their early-30's who, every year, put 50, 60,000 bulbs on their house and lawn and trees, and these are all timed to dance to music. And so, this has created quite a sensation and so there's probably half a mile of traffic tonight outside their house, backed up maybe even a mile trying to get in and see the show.

I mean, it's the Griswold story, right? It's the house that could be seen from outer space. What's - what drew me to them also was the family dynamic, their relationship, their extended family. Once you get inside the house that can be seen from outer space, of course, the inside is so much more interesting, the relationships and the people.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Todd(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Todd, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TODD (Caller): Hi. It's good to be talking to you.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Welcome to the show.

TODD: Thanks. I had to really got a smile on my face when you started this because I'm originally from Dallas. Probably, if I was still there, I'd be living in Frisco right now. But when my wife and I first got married, we lived in Richardson and would drive down the street every night during the season. There was this one house right on the corner, and your guest just made a comment about the Griswold house. That's exactly what we called that house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TODD: And it was so bright. And eventually, even their garage - they took their garage door off and replaced it with a Plexiglas door with animated displays inside it.

Mr. STUEVER: And that sounds...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STUEVER: ...that sounds completely normal to me now.

TODD: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's funny �cause I think it's a bit of an extension of kind of a dynamic in Texas, being a Texan and, honestly, proud of it. But, you know, there's kind of a dynamic of always keeping up with the Joneses there and...

Mr. STUEVER: Oh, yeah.

TODD: I think that's what happened over the last 10 or 15 years with these Christmas displays.

Mr. STUEVER: Right. Right.

ROBERTS: Todd, thanks for your call. That's certainly a dynamic you ran into.

Mr. STUEVER: Keeping up with the Joneses is a huge theme of this book. I mean, the race to have bigger and better and prettier and newer. The town itself was an expression of keeping up with, you know, the suburb immediately south of it, you know. That house in Richardson, I may know that house. I think I - as he described it, I think I've heard about that house. There's another house in Richardson where - that had that many lights and then the neighbors just put up a question mark and lights on their garage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STUEVER: Which has been a picture going around this year of someone's house all done like that and the neighbor just put ditto on the garage. You know, it brings out like the comical snarkiness in people. For every person who wants to go over-the-top for Christmas, there's somebody always very nearby willing to make a snarky comment about what they've done to themselves at Christmas time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: My guest is Hank Stuever, the book is called "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." In the vein of keeping up with the Joneses, one of the women who let you follow her around, Tammie Parnell, it was basically her job...

Mr. STUEVER: Right.

ROBERTS: ...to make sure everybody's house was perfectly decorated.

Mr. STUEVER: All the Jones kept up with one another. Yeah.

ROBERTS: Right.

Mr. STUEVER: Yeah. Tammie is - lives in a gated-community. She's very involved with her kids' schools. Her husband is the vice president of a major clothing company. But two months a year, she hires herself out and her business is called Two Elves with a Twist. And she will come and decorate your McMansion, your 5,000-square-foot house for you for Christmas, which is an overwhelming job for most people. And she'll get out all of your Christmas decorations and figure out what else you need, which she'll sell you at a slight mark up. You know, it costs about $1,000 a day to hire Tammie to really do it up right. And this involves...

ROBERTS: And describe what that looks like when she's really done a theme.

Mr. STUEVER: When you walk in, you know, there's been the main - what I call the voyeur-foyer, which is the vaulted ceiling entryway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STUEVER: And you've got like 12 or 14-foot tree, you know, all done. I mean, to - within perfection, theme, feathers, ribbons, bows, birds.

ROBERTS: Birds?

Mr. STUEVER: Yeah. Well, whatever the theme is, you know.

ROBERTS: Uh-huh.

Mr. STUEVER: And then you would have another tree in a family room, which would be the family tree with the multi-colored lights and maybe the - like the heirloom ornaments from nana(ph) and memo. And then you would have a tree in your media room. You would want to - Tammie loves it when people have trees in their master bedrooms. You need a tree for the baby's room. It's not just one tree and there's a lot of plastic garland involved. You need garland going up your grand staircase...

ROBERTS: Are any of these trees actual - from nature trees, by the way?

Mr. STUEVER: No. Tammie explained to me early on about life in Frisco, that fake is okay here. And I think that's a theme running through the book, fake is okay. If you're going to ever fall in love with Christmas again, you have to embrace the fact that fake is okay here, no matter where you are.

ROBERTS: I have an aunt who used to say Christmas was license to be tacky.

Mr. STUEVER: Exactly. I love that. Yeah. That - that's it.

ROBERTS: The third woman who let you into her life was Caroll Cavazos. Am I pronouncing it correctly?

Mr. STUEVER: Cavazos. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: And she...

Mr. STUEVER: She and I met...

ROBERTS: Not showy.

Mr. STUEVER: Not showy. One of the few people I met in Frisco who really hues to a budget at Christmastime. She has three children. She's a single mom. Her kids - at the time I started following them, her kids ranged in age from 10 to 27. And she budgeted $1,200 for Christmas shopping: $300 per kid and then $300 for everybody else. And I met them - they were camped out at Best Buy on Black Friday. I was out there, you know, trying to decipher that insanity that happens every year. And Carol and Marissa almost literally took me by the hand, took me through it that day, and we've been hanging out ever since. She's very involved in her church. It's a real big, kind of a mega church. You know, they did a big Christmas pageant that they were really involved in.

And, you know, for her Christmas is the one time that the glass seems half full and not half empty. She struggles really hard to always remain positive, which I think is - makes her emblematic of a lot of Americans who just, you know, come what may, we're always told to make ourselves happier and be positive. And Christmas is really a freight train coming full of that, you know, it really - there's something wrong with you if you're not happy at Christmastime. And so I sort of painted the holiday through her, you know, which she was experiencing.

ROBERTS: How big a part is the role of Christ's birth in all of this?

Mr. STUEVER: Big, if you ask people, you know. And then, of course, as we all know, the message gets confused. And my book really goes into that. People sort of trying to find some mysterious unknown balance between the secular and the religious and always losing out when the Visa bill comes, you know. That's really the heart of the book.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. My guest is Hank Stuever. And we want to hear your spectacular Christmas traditions or moments or just an unbelievable display that you have driven by or taken part in. You can call us at 800-989-8255. Or you can send us email: talk@npr.org. Let's hear from Steve(ph) in Buffalo. Steve, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. For a number of years, I was performing "Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris, a one-man show. And at first, it was just sort of a good way for a performer to get a little bit of extra money at the holidays. But what actually blew me away was round about the second or third year, I noticed I was getting a lot of repeat audience members. And at one point, people were saying, you know, this is our cousin from California, we brought them here, you know, for the holidays and we all came to see this like we do every year. And it - I just kind of all of a sudden realized, oh, my gosh, I am now part of this family's let's all pile into the car and go do this holiday thing.

Mr. STUEVER: Right. Right.

STEVE: And I just felt this massive weight of responsibility all of sudden. You know, I was just kind of like in it for the lark and then the show really kind of meant that much more to me at that point...

Mr. STUEVER: Right.

STEVE: ...because I just - I was like, wow, this is what they do. I am what they do.

Mr. STUEVER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: It's crazy.

Mr. STUEVER: That David Sedaris material on Christmas has been with us now, if you think about it, for 14, 15 years. And it filled an incredible void that had existed up until then as far as snarky Christmas goes. People really need a valve to sort of affirm some of the contradictory feelings that they're having about the part of the holiday that insists that we all be happy, that we all be from perfect families, that nobody is a drunk.

You know, Sedaris stepped right into that and scintillated so much about people's negative but not bad feelings about Christmas, you know. That there was sort of a pejorative Christmas out there ready to be strip-mined by modern humorists, definitely.

ROBERTS: Well, I also like his point about becoming somebody else's family tradition.

Mr. STUEVER: Yeah. Yeah.

ROBERTS: I mean, it is a responsibility. The (unintelligible) must feel that way.

Mr. STUEVER: They do.

ROBERTS: The people drive by their house annually.

Mr. STUEVER: The do. And in fact, one reason Jeff does these lights - a big reason he does it is because he asks people to bring food for the local food bank. As they drive by, they can donate food. But another reason he started it was Frisco, Texas was one of those towns that was a lot of pasture not very long ago. And in the last decade and a half has gone from 6,000 people to more than 100,000 people, all of whom are from someone else, very much like Frisco, a big box store, mall world kind of town.

And Jeff realized that these places are sort of bereft of anything that feels like tradition or authenticity. You've got your Olive Garden and Red Lobster and all the comforts, but you don't have the sense that we've always been here and we've always done something this way. So he very strongly feels that he is helping his town have something where they can say within a very few years, we always do this, you know.

ROBERTS: Well, also, he's frankly an agi-techie(ph) and likes the computer challenge.

Mr. STUEVER: He totally is that - yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STUEVER: He's made a career around helping other people's computer challenges, so, yeah.

ROBERTS: So how have your feelings about Christmas changed?

Mr. STUEVER: You know, I get asked that question a lot. And my - I went - I wrote about Christmas because Christmas sort of freaks me out, like it's so big and people have so much expectation heaped upon it that they can only come out of it with a smidgeon of melancholy amid all that joy.

My feelings about Christmas are that sort of the crazy, commercial, crowded, Black Friday kind of parts of it are actually more in line with the very ancient solstice festivals that created Christmas, which were street riots, you know, party, Girls Gone Wild, Mardi Gras, Halloween - all of that sort of rolled into one was Christmas originally, before the Victorians got a hold of it. After the Puritans got rid of it, you know, what we came out with was this sweet, lovely, tender, home and hearth Christmas. Now, I understand Christmas as a big street riot, and it makes a whole lot - much more sense.

ROBERTS: Hank Stuever's book is called "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." You can actually read more about his 5 a.m. Black Friday visit to Best Buy in an excerpt on our Web site. Go to npr.org then click on TALK OF THE NATION. Hank Stuever also covers pop culture for the Washington Post. Thank you so much for being here.

Mr. STUEVER: Well, thank you and merry Christmas.

ROBERTS: To you, too.

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Excerpt: 'Tinsel'

Cover of 'Tinsel'

Best Buy

(a prologue)

Before the black Friday dawn, the sky is still a mix of dark blue and the sick sodium-vapor saffron of the suburban night. I park by the Beijing Chinese Super Buffet and walk across the lot to Best Buy, where hundreds of people — some in their twelfth or thirteenth hour of standing in line — await the day-after-Thanksgiving doorbuster sale. Best Buy will open at 5 a.m. The shoppers are wrapped in their fleecies, hoodies, and wubbies. They have their grande lattes and their Krispy Kremes. Some pitched tents and now have their butts planted on portable reclining chairs that were purchased for the specific act of waiting around, waiting all over America, waiting as they've learned to do when Harry Potter novels are released, or when new generations of video game systems come out, or when reality TV producers hold auditions. The line wraps around the big box. A news helicopter flies overhead to show the world itself at the beginning of another holiday season, and the theme never changes: See what it's come to. Everyone looks up at the sky. Christmas is at our throats again.

This is the Centre at Preston Ridge, a mammoth retail strip mall, one of several "power centers" (as the real-estate guys call them) in Frisco, Texas, a boomtown outside Dallas. I walk past chain restaurants, box stores, and boutiques — including Fetal Fotos, a place to get ultrasounds-on-the-go, a Baby Jesus moment right there. So smitten were the developers with their site's pioneer lore that they incorporated it into the design: Bronze sculptures of cattle roam the landscaped berms between rows and rows of parking spaces. Three limestone obelisks bear never-read plaques telling the story of the Shawnee Trail, which ran through here a century and a half ago. It's the mythic saga of the millions of cattle driven through this very land and the difficulties faced by homesteading settlers, as if gently chastising happy consumers, Just you think about that hardscrabble life next time you're wandering through Old Navy. Over another short hill, by the Hampton Inn, more bronze sculptures of longhorn steers are on a permanent stampede toward the Target and the TJ Maxx.

Several of the Best Buy employees (corporate calls them "blue shirts") are imploring those of us in the crowd to stay calm. A couple of cops are here, too. I'm hanging back with a mother I've just met, who's in her late forties. She has straight, shoulder-length brown hair, a nice, nervous laugh, and a look of determination in her eyes. Her daughter, who is ten, is wearing a fuchsia shearling jacket, her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she twirls around and around with caffeinated anticipation, talking and talking. The girl tells me she wants a pink iPod Nano for Christmas. She tells me she's going to be Lucy in her school's production of A Charlie Brown Christmas. She sees a Hummer H3 parked nearby and wishes her family had one. "But we drive a Taurus," she says. The girl tells me her name is Marissa, and I write it down. ("Why do you write everything down?" she asks.)

The mother tells me her name: Caroll, with one r and two l's. Caroll tells me what she's here to buy today: a computer for her own mother, a washer and dryer for her older daughter and son-in-law, and a laptop for her son. I ask Caroll if it's going to be a big Christmas for her family this year.

"Well, I don't know," she says. "What's 'big'?"

Excerpted from Tinsel by Hank Stuever. Copyright © 2009 by Hank Stuever. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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A Search for America's Christmas Present

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