Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present

( 9 )


In Tinsel, Hank Stuever turns his unerring eye for the idiosyncrasies of modern life to Frisco, Texas?a suburb at once all-American and completely itself?to tell the story of the nation?s most over-the-top celebration: Christmas.
Stuever?s tale begins on the blissful easy-credit dawn of Black Friday, as he jostles for bargains among the crowds at the big-box stores. From there he follows Frisco?s true believers as they navigate through ...

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Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present

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In Tinsel, Hank Stuever turns his unerring eye for the idiosyncrasies of modern life to Frisco, Texas—a suburb at once all-American and completely itself—to tell the story of the nation’s most over-the-top celebration: Christmas.
Stuever’s tale begins on the blissful easy-credit dawn of Black Friday, as he jostles for bargains among the crowds at the big-box stores. From there he follows Frisco’s true believers as they navigate through three years of holiday drama. Tammie Parnell is the proprietor of “Two Elves with a Twist,” a company that decks the halls of other people’s McMansions. Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski spend eleven months preparing the visible-from-space, awe-inspiring light display they stage on their lawn each December. And single mother Caroll Cavazos, a devout churchgoer, hopes that the life-affirming moments of the season can transcend her everyday struggles. Tinsel is a humane, revealing, and very funny portrait of one community’s quest to discover a more perfect holiday amidst the frenzied, mega-churchy, shoparific world of Christmas.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Cultural anthropology at its most exuberant." – The New Yorker

"Laugh-out-loud funny. … Stuever’s keen eye misses very little." – USA Today

"A delicately calibrated combination of rigorous reporting, observational humor, and old-fashioned empathy, Tinsel is the book that saved Christmas for this curmudgeon." – Laura Miller, Salon

"A study of Christmas excess as an exercise in American anthropology. … [Stuever] manages to find the heart in his characters’ obsessive consumerism [and] the somewhat jolly realization that no matter how prepackaged and homogenized the holiday has become, something about it remains inviolably personal." – Entertainment Weekly

"[Stuever’s] epistle from big-box America is revealing and humane." – Texas Monthly

"The book you need to read to get ready for the season is Hank Stuever’s lively Tinsel. … Stuever is both a magnificent prose stylist and a compelling storyteller, and his richly detailed reportage rings true. … The book doesn’t judge; it reveals." – The Dallas Morning News

"Illuminate[s] how far we've strayed from a family holiday to the commercial and economic abyss we have created for ourselves as a country. Tinsel is well worth reading, but it's a coin toss whether those who do so will find it funny or sad. It is a snapshot of contemporary America in search of meaning." – San Jose Mercury News

"A stylishly written and often delightful book that aims to capture all the things that Christmas is about—family, values, religion, ritual, celebration, kitsch. It’s fortunate that a writer of Stuever’s gifts has undertaken this mission. On page after page, he is wry and witty and astute." – Jamie Malanowski, Washington Monthly

"The ultimate holiday drop-in." – Redbook

"Amazingly reported." – New York ("Approval Matrix")


"Stuever unwraps both appalling consumerism and genuine holiday spirit — sometimes in the same package — and treats the people he writes about with respect and affection, even when they're doing things he can't quite believe." – St. Petersburg Times

"[Tinsel] debunks the myths of the holiday and straightens out the picture on our never-quite-accurate nostalgic images. Not exactly the kind of book to read by the hearth with Nat King Cole playing in the background on Christmas Eve. But in Stuever’s hands, it is immensely entertaining. … A fast-paced examination of what December 25th has done to Americans, and vice-versa." – The Buffalo News

"Marvelously written and sharply observed. You will definitely laugh; you will probably learn; you might get angry. … Some reporters go to the halls of government to take the pulse of the nation; [Stuever] goes to Bed Bath & Beyond. The man can see the secret life of America in a Slurpee cup." – Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman

"Stuever's fascination with and empathy for the human experience are abundant." – Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Behind it all are people trying to be happy, trying to bring their families together and trying to have the type of holiday they've been told they have to have—and Stuever feels for them. Reading Tinsel is a nice antidote to the blizzard of obligations, expectations and traditions that bury us at the end of each year." – Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Stuever’s clear-eyed examination of America in holiday-orgy-mode is energetic, acerbic, and informative." – The Stranger

"Whether you love Christmas, hate Christmas, or just love to hate it, this book is fun. (Batteries not included.)" – Albuquerque Journal


"Spot-on observations about how modern America celebrates the holiday — in all its retail madness. Satisfying and illuminating [and] difficult to put down. And why should you? It’s the holiday season, after all." – The Palm Beach Post

"Scrupulously observed … Tinsel is not just the obligatory snapshot of America with Santa, it is a meticulously detailed portrait of a society that remains true to its hunter/gatherer/capitalist roots." – San Antonio Express-News

"What emerges [in Tinsel] is much more than the contest between sacred and secular. It’s how the happiest time of year can also be melancholy and how holiday rituals collide with popular culture." – The Oklahoman

"[Tinsel is] hilarious and moving. … Excess is Christmas. Excess is us." – Macleans

"Tinsel will make you re-evaluate how you spend your Christmas, and whether you're so blinded by the sale signs and the spectacle that you forget what Christmas is about." – The Seattle Times

"[A] frequently entertaining, informative and laughter-inducing journey into the American consumer psyche. It’s a world of Wal-Marts, Best Buys, Olive Gardens, Targets and shopping malls. …There are moments when the characters surprise us (as human beings often do) with their tenderness, realism and understanding that these holiday shenanigans are just part of one big game in which they are bit players." Christopher Carbone, The Faster Times


"In this dazzling feat of reportage, Hank Stuever gets at what’s best and worst not just about Christmas but about us as Americans. Hilarious, insightful, compassionate, and hugely entertaining, Tinsel is a gift (holiday or otherwise) to anyone who loves great writing." Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife and Prep

"Hank Stuever wades bravely into that strange, terrifying maw that is Christmas, returning from the McMansionvilles of the flyover territories with a book that is not just hilarious but is suffused with the unexpected sweetness and warmth of – dare I say it? – 100 Yule logs. Tinsel is about what America has become while Santa wasn't watching." – Sandra Tsing Loh, author of Mother on Fire

"Insightful, funny/sad, filled with poetry and despair. Who better than Hank Stuever to take on the Christmas-Industrial Complex with such ultimate humanity, given that he writes like an angel?" – David Rakoff, author of Half Empty and Fraud

Bryan Burrough
This is the consummate "Young Writer Discovers Middle America" book (or rediscovers, given that Stuever appears to be from Oklahoma, poor guy). By and large Stuever pulls it off, in part because he eschews (most) condescension and embraces these happy, bustling Christianized Texans for what they really are, not what he thinks they ought to be.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Stuever, a Washington Post staff writer and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, has appeared on The View, The Today Show and NPR with his incisive commentaries. Following Off Ramp, he returns for another heartland safari, this time to observe Christmas celebrations in Frisco, Tex. He explains: “This book takes place over three holiday seasons (2006, 2007 and 2008) among three unrelated families who live in a new megaworld north of Dallas, a place that often seemed to have surrendered its identity to the shopper within.” His seasonal survey begins with Tammie Parnell, who runs a business decorating other people's homes. In the chapter “There Glows the Neighborhood,” he describes the “Trykoski lights,” a house decorated with 50,000 lights, and traces this holiday history back to 2004 when Carson Williams scored a million-plus Internet hits after synchronizing 16,000 lights to music. Stuever watches the 1.1 million-square-foot Stonebriar Centre mall being decorated at midnight. While single mom Caroll Cavazos shops with her family at Best Buy, the author has an epiphany (“I see it as Caroll sees it. Real lives are being lived here”), and later he goes with her to church and a potluck dinner gift-swap. With impeccable research and solid reporting, Stuever has written the gift book that keeps on giving—Christmas consumerism wrapped together with traditional family values. (Nov. 12)
Kirkus Reviews
Washington Post pop-culture writer Stuever (Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere, 2004) searches for the meaning of Christmas in the Texas heartland. In 2006 the author went to live in suburban Texas, with return trips in 2007 and 2008, to pursue the cultural meaning of Christmas in America. He tells the stories of three Christmas-obsessed Texans: Tammie Parnell, a mother of two who runs a holiday decorating business; Jeff Trykoski, a computer engineer who becomes a local celebrity each year as he decorates his house with nearly 50,000 Christmas lights; and single mother Caroll Cavazos, who, along with a mob of other bargain shoppers, camps out in a Best Buy parking lot the morning after Thanksgiving. The Dallas suburb that Stuever documents-Frisco, population 90,000-is a fairly stereotypical example of suburban sprawl, dotted with megachurches and stripmalls, with all the garish tackiness and consumerism that entails. Though the author aims to empathize with his subjects, he can't resist taking some shots, singling out shallowness for special ridicule. Parnell, for example, fantasizes about doing Christmas decorations for the Bush White House, but is absolutely clueless about the wars Bush is waging; after learning of an earthquake in China that killed some 10,000 people, Trykoski worried about whether the Chinese Christmas-light factories were destroyed; Cavazos, the ultimate American consumer, overspends on Christmas presents and attends a church that features a Starbucks in the vestibule. The mockery here is a bit obvious, perhaps, but it does have a certain wicked charm. The problem occurs when Stuever tries to raise the tone of the narrative-quotingstatistics about consumer spending or dwelling on the emptiness of suburban living-in an effort to transform the book into a more serious study. As a result of the tonal shifts, his sociological conclusions about the meaning of Christmas in America are somewhat muddled. A pleasant but uneven look at Christmas in suburbia. Author appearances in Houston, Dallas, Austin. Agent: Heather Schroder/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547394565
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/11/2010
  • Pages: 331
  • Sales rank: 1,483,390
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

HANK STUEVER is an award-winning pop-culture writer for the Washington Post ’s style section. He is the author of Off Ramp, an essay collection, and has appeared on Today, The View, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and National Public Radio.

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Table of Contents

Best Buy (A Prologue) 1

Fake Is Okay Here

1 Target 11

2 Town & Kountry 17

3 It's Bazaar 36

4 There Glows the Neighborhood 42

5 Anthropologie 64

6 Christmas Caroll 78

7 Unto Us 91

The Gap (A Slide Show) 105

Manger Babies, Angel Trees & Tiny Tims

8 Mary, Did You Know? 115

9 Restoration Hardware 135

10 Poverty Barn 149

11 The Neediest 164

12 The Total Moment 178

13 Hallmark 199


14 Things Remembered 211

15 The Pageant 227

16 Wrapping 239

American Greetings (An Interlude) 257

Half Off

17 Wal-Mart 263

18 The Epiphany Party 278

Baby, Please Come Home

19 The Container Store 287

20 Hot Topic 296

Circuit City (Some Endings) 300

Acknowledgments 317

Sources, Bibliography, and Some Other Stocking Stuffers 321

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2009

    What have we done to Christmas?

    Hank Stuever follows the lives of 3 families through the Christmas Season. He has chosen totally different personalities and lifestyles to follow. He examines the "marketing" of Christmas and how far we have strayed from the original meaning of Christmas. Mr. Stuever, at the same time, is very witty and there are many amusing paragraphs in this book. It is enjoyable to read, but, at the same time, challenges us to rethink the ways in which our own family celebrate the holidays.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2009

    Hank Stuever exposes the reality of Christmas excesses in the ever-larger north Texas retail Mecca of Frisco!

    All right. I admit to a certain point of view, as a transplant to Dallas from the Midwest so many years ago that I'm flirting with being considered a native Texan. Early on, it's the surface that seems to matter more here. The biggest, newest, shiniest of everything. The Mary Kay effect. The cosmetic surgery. The largest, tallest buildings outlined in lights or argon gas. Never mind the shiny car is leased, not owned; the faces have been altered temporarily or permanently under the cover of big hair; that big imposing structure is laden with asbestos in addition to monumental debt. So it is not so shocking to read the most memorable, and probably the truest, observation of Tammie Parnell, the home decorator in Tinsel, "Fake is OK here."

    The author spent much of three Christmas seasons embedded with three Frisco families to study the behavior, beliefs, traditions and habits of Friscans during the holidays. There is Tammie, the transformer of McMansions into holiday splendor for roughly $1,000 for a day's work; the Trykosis, whose household is illuminated with tens of thousands of lights and viewed by thousands of passengers in idling SUVs, not to mention YouTube viewers around the country; and Caroll, the single mom who finds hope and inspiration in the preaching of her megachurch pastor.

    I laughed out loud through many of the passages in this book, all the while feeling a kind of sadness for the desperation so many exhibit in their quest for an ideal holiday season to match their perfect lives, raising children who don't experience the denial of any material good or positive reinforcement while in the womb of their parents' homes.

    The author tells these stories as a reporter would, through observations and the words of the people he has selected to study. The conclusions and judgements you form when reading Tinsel will be entirely yours. He reports, and you decide. Along the way, you'll find it hard to resist the author's constant wit and charm.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Pulling the curtain back on Frisco

    I'm not done reading this book yet but it's been a funny and interesting read. Being a Frisco resident myself and a former Celebration Covenant church goer, I kinda knew alot about Frisco's strange ideological pull between worshiping all things material and being good Christians. Frisco is a great place to live. Mr. Stuever as an outsider looking in gets the same vibe I get being a resident here. Sometimes I just gotta shake my head. I think a lot of us Frisco residents will see ourselves in this book but I'm not so sure how many of us will admit it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2012

    Not my kind of book, but hopefully a good choice for others.

    This book was barely "OK" but then this is only my opinion. The author did plenty of research, no doubt which alot of us that live in NE Texas could have told him in half an hour.

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  • Posted December 29, 2011

    Highly recommended

    Another lefty fascinated by the conspicuous consumption and religious faith of Texans!

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    Posted December 22, 2009

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    Posted September 4, 2010

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    Posted December 19, 2009

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    Posted November 19, 2011

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