Pillar of the economy, climax of the calendar year, and wellspring of sentiment, myth, and moral teaching, Christmas is that institution which is so influential, so pervasive, so enormous that it seldom requires more than a pop lyricist to help reveal itself. A phenomenon more ripe for journalistic scrutiny, then, would be hard to find, which is why Hank Stuever, a reporter for the Washington Post, spent three Christmas seasons in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, where he was well positioned to observe suburban Americans performing their holiday rituals in their native habitat. The product of his study is Tinsel: A Search for Americas Christmas Present, a stylishly written and often delightful book that aims to capture all the things that Christmas is aboutfamily, values, religion, ritual, celebration, kitsch.

Stuever first embedded himself in Frisco in 2006, a year that will soon glow with the status of legend as the last good year before money troubles set in, and he was around in 2008 in time to see the rollercoaster car crest but left before it had plunged all that far. He was certainly fortunate to have seen the good times, for what is Frisco but a place built on the assurance of prosperity? After all, McMansion-packed bedroom communities cemented to one another by enormous shopping malls dont spring up on former prairie land without cheerful optimism ruling the HR departments at Southwest Airlines, Texas Instruments, Frito-Lay, and all the other companies headquartered in Dallas and its environs. None of the people Stuever meets are J. R. Ewing rich, but none of the people we spend a great deal of time with really worry about money. Even the poorestand were talking about a woman with a good job who has paid off her homeis someone whose children can afford to buy her a big-screen hi-def TV for her bedroom, even though she already has one in there that works perfectly well but just isnt quite as large or deffy as the new one. This woman, whose name is Caroll, a couple in their early thirties named Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski, and Tammie Parnell, a wealthy soccer mom who has a holiday decorating business, are Stuevers main subjects; by the end of the book, we know them not only as people but as consumers. We remember Caroll, for example, as much for her Black Friday pilgrimages to Best Buy, and the annual ritual she and her daughter share of going to Penneys and picking up the holiday snow globe she gives away every year, as for her work at her megachurch. Of course, why wouldnt we be familiar with these people? Were all part of the same homogenized culture. To one degree or another, they are us.

Its fortunate that a writer of Stuevers gifts has undertaken this mission. On page after page, he is wry and witty and astute. Heres his description of a local landmark:

Where the LBJ [Freeway] meets U.S. 75 is an interchange of stacked ramps called the High Five, which is so revered by drivers that the Dallas Morning News asked its readers to send in their most stirringly artistic photos of it. Lately a few citizens have been leaping to their deaths off the High Five. I can think of no greater compliment to the builders of intricate freeway spans than to attract both poetry and despair.

Architecturally, the Dallas suburbs seem oddly determined to become a replica of the English countryside, a posh world of make-believe polo matches and fox hunts. The houses all have the fieldstone veneers and the eight-foot mahogany-stained doors, the rounded
interior Sheetrock corners, the skip-trowel wall finishes, the wrought-iron balusters on the foyer stair They are the luxury homebuilding equivalent of the boob job.

One of Stuevers most likable qualities is his enthusiasm, which seems most evident when he encounters Americana in abundance, prompting him to break out in long, giddy sentences: “The entrepreneurs here [at a flea market] do business under names such as Razzl Dazzl, Appli-Kayes, Good Old Stuff, Santas Ranch, Thinkins Pink, Aged With Grace, Debbies Closet, Quiltin Cousins, Marys Makins, and Nuthin But Ribbon.” Margaret Mead must have been pleased with what she discovered in Samoa, but you could never sense her heart fluttering in her text.

As perhaps youve gathered, among Stuevers most prominent gifts is that he is a noticer, an observer gifted with insight and nuance and an eye for detail. Consider this description of Bridgette and Jeff Trykoski:

Bridgette is a clotheshorse who keeps a mental list of pros and cons about the areas mallsStonebriar Centre in Frisco (mostly cons) versus the Shops at Willow Bend in Plano (mostly pros)and a list of reasons why none of the jeans or tops in her closet are right for the dinner or happy hour shes planning on a given weekend. Jeff wears the same thing every dayclothes Bridgette buys for him Khaki pants, brown shoes, brown belt that goes with the brown shoes, shirt from Dillards that goes with the brown shoes, brown belt, khakis, she says about his Monday-to-Friday wardrobe. (Weekends: stonewashed blue jeans and Aggie sweatshirts.)

Now, this is an eye for detail that rivals Tom Wolfes. But as any fifteen-year-old can telland as those still in touch with their inner fifteen-year-olds can confirmnoticing is powerfully disturbing, and often in effect no different than criticizing. If you were to say to a fifteen-year-oldneutrally and without affect”Youre the only one here wearing [for example] a turtleneck,” you might well induce a week of fraught self-examination, and perhaps win for that turtleneck eternal banishment from the wardrobe, just for the crime of having invited scrutiny. Stuever wont tell you if theres anything significant about Jeffs brown and khaki uniform, but based on the way that Stuever presented the information, Ill bet that youve drawn a conclusion.

This happens throughout the book: Stuever drives right up to the edge of a conclusion, then takes his foot off the gas. He tells us, for example, that the Trykoskis have decided not to have children, shows us in detail Jeffs absorbing-verging-on-compulsive dedication to creating elaborate Christmas lighting displays, and tells us the couple wont travel to visit their families on Christmas because they need to be home to tend to the display, which causes hard feelings among the relations. If youre like me, youre thinking that this young couple seems like they have some complex feelings about family, but its not a subject Stuever probes. Instead, he just lays this information out there, amid lots of other observations, leaving it to the reader to connect whatever dots seem to warrant connecting. When Stuever does this, unfortunately, all the energy hes amassed with his wonderful descriptions fizzles away.

Perhaps this approach stems from a lack of conviction: Steuver loves Christmas but hasnt put up a tree anywhere hes lived for the past two decades; he recognizes the cheesiness in Christmas kitsch but also kind of digs it; he understands the banality and hollowness of consumerism but loves the mall enough to close the bar at Applebees more than a few times; he doesnt believe in God but loves believers. My guess is that same indecisiveness affected Stuever when it came time to write about the people central to his story, and since he was being called on to portray people who had taken him into their homes and opened themselves to his world-class noticing, and since none of them were war criminals or egomaniacal business moguls or coke-addled actresses, he decided to use broad strokes rather than commit psychoanalysis.

Its our bad luck that Stuever isnt heartless; he does have a theme working here, even if he doesnt ruthlessly drive it home. It emerges from the lips of his great discovery, Tammie Parnell, the wealthy supermom (Stuever tells us to think Holly Hunter) who earns herself about $30,000 in the six weeks after Veterans Day festooning the McMansions of indolent or occupied or unconfident peers with yuletide gewgaws fresh from Guangdong Province. Early in the book, Stuever joins Tammie on the prowl for decorations:

It is faux-finished, plasticized and derivativebut thats not the point. Tammie has Christmas figured out. It has less to do with true authenticity than a feeling of it Absolutely fake is okay here. Diamond earrings. Christmas trees. If you want me to prove that fake is okay here, lets you and I go to the Stonebriar Country Club pool one day and check everyone out. You will see that fake is okay here.

This is an idea that underlies much of what Stuever finds in Frisco, including the Christmas gift drive that inspires charity with descriptions of specific youngsters with heart-softening needs; it turns out that the needs are real enough, but the recipients are as fictional as Tiny Tim Cratchit. Of course, a writer who hit these notes harder than Stuever does would risk falling into the trap of preachiness, of echoing exhausted clichs about the true meaning of Christmas that would likely go in one door of the mall and out the other. Perhaps this is a subject that even an accomplished journalist like Stuever can take only so far before needing to entrust it to the more adept hands of someone with a more profound ability to portray in an illuminating way how innocence can cloak our obliviousness, how our sentimental invocations of a babe in a manger and an angel in Bedford Falls blinds us to our unyielding appetites. If theres another Robert Altman out there, wont you please stand up? Your great subject awaits.

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Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.