Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present by Hank Stuever
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1st edition, 2009
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Synopsis & Review: Black Friday 2006: Hank Stuever mingles with the crowd lined up outside a Texas Best Buy in the pre-dawn hours. When the doors open at five, he will be swept in alongside all the shoppers hunting the best bargains available on this most vaunted shopping day of the year. Business is booming in the US, and everyone seems to be spending, whether they have the money or not. From that arc-sodium lit parking lot, Stuever will follow several people through the 2006 Christmas season in suburban Texas, trailing them through malls and McMansion-filled neighborhoods. There’s Caroll, a single mother and devoted Christian, trying to provide her family with a lovely Christmas. There’s Tammie, energetic and optimistic, who decorates other peoples’ houses and is so involved with it that’s he sometimes neglects her own family. And there are the Trykoskis, a young and child-free couple who every year create a bigger, brighter, more elaborate light show on their house and yard, dazzling an endless stream of lookers on. While observing his subjects, Stuever also becomes an active participant, attending church programs with Carroll and hanging garland with Tammie. While immersed in their experiences for three years running (after spending the entire 2006 season in Texas, Stuever returns for visits in 2007 and 2008), Stuever also reflects on his own Christmases, and those of America.
I added Tinsel to my library request list right when it came out, but still didn’t get to read it till February. It’s okay, though; it doesn’t need to be Christmas to enjoy Tinsel.
The descriptions of life in Frisco were fascinating, both for the differences between the life I lead and those described in Tinsel–and for the little similarities, too. A lot of what went on was pretty foreign to me—and to Stuever—but those similarities illustrated a commonality of cultural experience and relevance. I was worried about it, but on the whole he restrained from too much condescension (though it does pop up from time to time), and wrote about his subjects with a lot of respect and empathy–and that’s what makes it so readable. There was a lot of humor, but some of the stories were really poignant. (Honestly, I kind of hated Tammie for not visiting her dying friend.)
One especially interesting facet of Tinsel is the way Stuever explores the origins of the sub/exurb. He delves into the history of Frisco as an independent township and farming community, following as much of its recorded history as he can trace through the present day. Fact is mixed with folklore as he finds that development is sometimes not so straightforward. Throughout, there are references to how different life was within living memory, when there were nothing but farms or cows where the Home Depot used to be.
What ought to be the weakest part of Tinsel, the memoir sections, actually end up working out really well. They’re seamlessly integrated into the book (he does his transitions marvelously), and serve to inspire reflection upon your own treatment of Christmas. Christmas is a big deal in my family—or at least, it was when my mom was alive. She would go all out decorating and baking, and it’s one of the things I most strongly associate with her. Using Christmas and everything it represented to her, she created some wonderful memories and feelings for her children, ones that I treasure to this day and hope to pass on down when I have kids. Christmas with my mother is pretty much the pinnacle of my childhood memories.
It doesn’t offer any answers, but instead ruminates on Christmas and what it means to us, and how Christmas is a product of our culture and what it means. Stuever touches on the history of Christmas and its different components (you WILL learn about Christmas lights!), and how the ways we celebrate have changed. Sometimes he writes of his own experiences of Christmas as a child, or at his own home with his partner, inviting readers to think about their own experiences in the context of Tinsel. Part memoir, part cultural essay, it is definitely a worthwhile addition to a holiday reading list.
Cover: Fucking stunning. I love it! The lit house is perfect, along with the gorgeous holiday card font—and the touches of candy striping on the spine, edges, and endpapers are fantastic. A++++ would shop again!
Tammie and I twist and arrange the mantel garland. She whips out two rolls of ribbon and wants to know which color and pattern I think she should scrunch into it, and how much of it, and which way.I stare at both choices with a true attempt at discernment: More gold? Or the rust-and-gold plaid? I tell her I’m no expert. If I were an exurban housewife married to a golf nut, with three kids and a problem with my blood-platelet count, I would have long since hired a Tammie type to rescue me. I’d hire Mexicans to hang the lights outside. I’d hire a caterer for my neighborhood party. I’d have my family portrait for the Christmas cards made in September, with us wearing our matching rugby shirts, print out the addresses on label-maker software, and ask my teenage babysitter to stuff the envelopes for an extra twenty bucks. I’d pop Love, Actually into the DVD player every day for a month and medicate my way through Christmas with eyes wide shut. Fake is okay here.
“Tammie, I don’t know,” I say at last, in a burst of opinion I never knew I held. “I’m thinking you should use the one that’;s more gold, and this angel should be farther to the right, not int he center. I think the other angel should be over here, on the table, in a centerpiece. That way the whole room starts working together.”
Tammie is silent. She squints at the mantel, then her eyes dart tot he table, then the tree, then the mantel, then the angels, then the mantel again.
“You’re really starting to understand your garlands!” she suddenly squeaks. “I need you. I need you to say what you think. You’ve got the eye, mister.”
11 February – 16 February