A Texan Twist To Visions Of The Holiday Season For the last three years, journalist Hank Steuver spent the holiday seasons embedded in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. The result is his new book, Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present. Steuver, a writer with the Style section of The Washington Post, goes to the mall and talks about how his Texas adventures gave him a different picture of the holiday season.

A Texan Twist To Visions Of The Holiday Season

A Texan Twist To Visions Of The Holiday Season

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For the last three years, journalist Hank Steuver spent the holiday seasons embedded in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. The result is his new book, Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present. Steuver, a writer with the Style section of The Washington Post, goes to the mall and talks about how his Texas adventures gave him a different picture of the holiday season.


Now that I've been turkey dropped on the air, I need a little retail pick-me-up. Let's all go to the mall.

SANTA CLAUS: Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas. Ho, ho, ho.

SMITH: Of course, the center of any mall this time of year is Santa Claus. I can't tell - is that a real beard, Santa?

SANTA CLAUS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. HANK STUEVER (Journalist): Oh, he's a genuinely bearded Santa is the correct term for that. My research would show that this Santa is well taken care of. And he's good at what he does and he's, you know, probably part of the Amalgamated Order of Santa Clauses.

SMITH: I'm hanging out in the mall in Tysons Corner, Virginia, with journalist Hank Stuever, because he knows a lot about Christmas - like the kind of green the guy in the red suit is making.

Mr. STUEVER: A genuinely bearded Santa can earn for the season - this one maybe 30 to 50 grand for the season.

SMITH: Hank Stuever is a writer for the Washington Post. He's also the author of a new book called "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Stuever spent much of the past three years visiting families in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas.

Mr. STUEVER: Three families who live in the very, very outer brand new mega-mall, mega-church, shopaholic suburbs, and I followed them through three Christmases.

SMITH: And that required months of going to the mall every day.

Stuever says it never gets old.

Mr. STUEVER: I can't help myself. The mall does make me deliriously happy, even as I know that this world cannot stand. There is not enough petroleum product left on our planet to sustain this forever and ever. And so I know that this should also make me frightened. I mean, I've loved the fakeness of Christmas. A whole part of my book is called Fake is Okay Here, where people just give in to that idea that they can seek, make or purchase a perfection.

That's the heartbreak of Christmas: that so many people try so hard to make it the perfect Christmas this year, to find perfect presents and to finally get along with one another and to finally, you know, relate to a relative that either has been cruel to them in the past or drinks too much. You know, Christmas really does mess with the American psyche in such a way that I can't resist it.

SMITH: Well, over the course of your book, I should say that you started out following families in 2006 Christmas and then you returned and visited them for Christmas 2007, 2008. So, in a way, one of the main characters in your book is the recession, the looming economic disaster out there hovering over Christmas.

Mr. STUEVER: You know, I started out writing a book about the magnificent half-trillion-dollar make believe that is American Christmas, and I was always alert to different fantasies that were playing out in front of me. And one of the fantasies that was playing out in front of me was our economy. How did people afford to move into houses that clearly, on paper, they can't afford? Where did they find the money to buy everything they want at the mall? These were things I was always keen to.

And when the recession changed, I didn't feel like I had predicted it, but I did feel a sort of recognition that in telling the story of the American economy through Christmas, I was waiting for something like this to happen.

SMITH: Now, in your book you act as a sort of assistant to this woman Tammy who is a professional Christmas decorator.

Mr. STUEVER: Yeah, she is. She started calling me her elf, yeah.

SMITH: So, are there fashions in Christmas decorating? Is it, like, things are in vogue and out of vogue?

Mr. STUEVER: Yes, there are, absolutely. You know, one year when I was doing this book back in the, like, gauzy, easy credit world of 2006, which seems like a million years ago, black - spray-painted black Christmas trees were in, upside down Christmas trees hung from the ceiling were in. We have come a long way and fallen a long way economically, because this year, now, everybody's preaching red and green, gold, red plaid, simple straightforward, we-are-a-suffering-people-but-by-god-we're-going-to-get-through-it Christmas.

SMITH: You wouldn't know it from the cover of the book and from the title "Tinsel" and we think Christmastime, because it doesn't happen in a lot of Christmas specials, but there is a lot of sadness in the book.

Mr. STUEVER: I would just consider it malpractice if I didn't look at that aspect of these people's lives. Things that they have laid awake at night worrying about - friends who are dying of sickness, a baby in need of a heart transplant, a friend and a brother who's died in Iraq. Those things are all very present at Christmas.

And, you know, I belong to a family - through my partner - I belong to a family where there had been a murder. My partner's brother was murdered 12 years ago, and I didn't know him and I came later. But I can tell you that Christmas is -as happy a Christmas as we have at that house, that sadness is with us too. And I just can't imagine writing about the sort of humorous, joyful, strange and snarky aspects of Christmas without that grief that we all carry with us, especially at the holidays.

SMITH: So, in your book, you're following these three families - the buildup to Christmas, the shopping, the bills, the church, the Christmas pageant, the music, everything - and then we get to Christmas in your book and you have sort of a revelation there, which is after the presents are open�

Mr. STUEVER: Or even before, yeah.

SMITH: �not a lot happens on the day of Christmas.

Mr. STUEVER: Yeah. Christmas Day is the shortest part of my book. I had written this long, elaborate chapter about every little movement made on Christmas Day - who opened what first, what so and so said to so and so, who's going to take what back, all of that. And my editor very smartly said, you know what the least interesting part of this book about Christmas is? It's Christmas Day. It was all the buildup, it was the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal, it was Tammy decorating her last house, it was, you know, her family going off to Vail for the ski holiday, it was Jeff trying to get all the lights finished. You know -and it was all these people shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping.

And then there was this quiet. And Christmas Day in America is still so beautifully quiet that on the page, you think let's just skip ahead to December 26 when Wal-Mart opens at 5:00 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. or whenever it opens and all those people storm the gates to get half-price Christmas lights, half-price wrapping paper. You know, like, they just reboot and you start over. And then tomorrow, you have 364 days left 'til Christmas. Better shop.

SMITH: If this were a Christmas movie - the jaded urban reporter who sets out to mock the people�

Mr. STUEVER: The very good-looking jaded�

SMITH: Good looking - George Clooney will play you�

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: The jaded urban reporter goes to a small town to make fun of people who take Christmas seriously. And you know how that movie ends? With the reporter discovering the true spirit of Christmas and forever changing his life.

Mr. STUEVER: Thank you, Charles Dickens.

SMITH: What happened?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: What happened? Look at you. You're still a jaded urban reporter. What are�

Mr. STUEVER: I know, I know. And people everywhere un-decide to buy the book. No, there is a change of character. There is a change of heart. I believe in believers. And I know that's a little bit of a copout, but this book taught me to really respect and really believe in people who believe with all their heart that this really is a very magical, very wonderful time of year, and they made me feel it. For a moment, I had it, and I loved that moment.

SMITH: Well, we should leave you to get a little shopping done for yourself.

Hank Stuever is the author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Thanks for showing us around the mall.

Mr. STUEVER: Thank you, and happy holidays.

SMITH: Merry Christmas.

(Soundbite of song, "Frosty the Snowman")

SMITH: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. Have a great night.

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