Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present
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In Tinsel, Hank Stuever searches out the most outlandish cultural excesses as well as the secret beauties of modern America s half-trillion-dollar Christmas holiday. When Stuever's narrative begins, he s standing in line with the people waiting to purchase flat-screen TVs at Best Buy on Black Friday. From there he follows Tammy Parnell, the proprietor of 'Two Elves with a Twist,' a company that decorates other people s houses for Christmas; Jeff and Bridgett Trykoski, owners of that one house every town has with Christmas decorations visible from space; and single mother Caroll Cavazos, who hopes that the life-affirming moments of Christmas might overcome the struggles of the rest of the year. Steuver's portraits are at once humane, heartfelt, revealing and very, very funny.
First, my dad who – full disclosure - suffered from several episodes of debilitating depression during his lifetime, adored Christmas and would always be happiest during the holiday season. His childlike enthusiasm was contagious and I love the holiday largely due to him. We were not a family of excess: for financial reasons (and thrift) our Christmases were quite simple, much more so than that of my friends. So I always felt somewhat deprived in terms of material items, but it didn’t detract from my love of Christmas.
Then, for many years I was in a relationship with a man whose family – though also not well-off – were generous beyond my wildest dreams. For me it was an 180 degree turn from the Christmases of my childhood and in material terms I became very spoiled (and pretty out of touch with the true spirit of Christmas).
Now I’m back to enjoying simplicity. Presents are not important, especially as we age. Having close friends and relatives (my parents are long gone) to spend time with is what it’s all about: lunches, tree-lightings, or simply going out for coffee.
I do admit, I *love* extravagant light displays and will travel miles to see the best ones. That is one of the biggest joys of the season for me.
As to the book, I enjoyed Stuever’s writing style and humor, and it was fun to “meet” the people with whom he spent so much time – especially Tammie, the professional home decorator. Of course, reading about the crazy light displays was also one of my favorite parts. This book takes place during Christmas of 2006, not long before the real estate bubble broke and recession set in. Stuever does go back a couple of times and sees people losing their homes and others cutting back on holiday spending.
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From my perspective as a Christian, Christmas is a stand-in celebration day for the actually unknown date of Christ's birth. We honor his day of death (which we actually do know) so it makes sense to honor his day of birth, as well. I don't harbor any grandiose ideas that Christmas started out as, or even should be, a specifically religious holiday---I know enough of its history to know that's not the case. Still, we can make anything and any day glorify God and that's what Christians have done with December 25th. That all said, it was very interesting to read Stuever's point of view regarding the things he experienced during Frisco's Christmas season, as he is a nonreligious gay liberal man and I am a conservative Christian woman who believes the gay lifestyle to be a sin. The surprising parts might not be what you'd expect them to be...
My favorite good part of this story was the experience the author had shopping for Angel Tree gifts. A lot of Christians think we're the only ones capable of generosity toward strangers. I've found that to be very untrue, and actually somewhat the opposite, more times than I'd like to think about. God made humans with compassionate hearts and many unbelievers still act in ways that very well represent the heart of God. Unfortunately, what he later finds out about how Angel Tree operates is really disappointing to both him and to me.
I think the saddest parts I read about his personal experiences were the times when it was obvious he was searching for something "magical" in Christmas---searching for what it's "supposed" to be. What he's searching for will only be found in Christ, cliche as that sounds. I imagine he would both chuckle and cringe at that statement.
The character of Tammie first made me laugh ("things not in nature..." Ha!) but later made me angry. The amount of presents she bought for her kids was disgusting. I can't even imagine---what a waste!
I researched Jeff and Bridgette (ok, fine, I Facebook-stalked them) and wasn't surprised to find out they'd divorced. That's sad but she was so mean and ungrateful to Jeff. At one point she says he'd be pretty much nothing without her. Looks like she's pretty much wrong there as he's still putting on awesome light shows for the city of Frisco and looks to be happily remarried to someone kind-looking. Yay for him.
A few other fun mentions were the Muskogee display, which my son just went to last week with his girlfriend's family, as well as the dancing light display featuring Mariah Carey's most famously annoying "All I Want For Christmas Is You". Our town has a display featuring that, as well.
Overall, I'm glad I read this. While I don't feel our family is in danger of this kind of excess, we can still get a little caught up in what the secular world wants Christmas to be. Christmas, like a relationship with the Lord, is personal and is whatever you make it to be. As for me and my house, I hope we'll always spend Christmas giving glory to God and making happy memories together.
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