Gay author finds the true meaning of Christmas in, of all places, Frisco
3.5 out of 5 Stars
TINSEL: A SEARCH FOR
AMERICA’S CHRISTMAS PRESENT, by Hank Stuever.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2009). $24. 336 pp.
The Christmas carol quietly coos that "all is calm, all is bright." Calm? Traffic and pedestrian gawkers ruin that sentiment. Bright? You owe your next month’s salary to the electric company. So why go through it?
In Tinsel, Hank Steuver says "Why not?" detailing holidays run wonderfully amok in one Texas city.
Steuver wasn’t really a Christmas kinda guy. Oh, sure: His family celebrated with the requisite gifts and Santa and midnight Mass. But somewhere along the way — when his parents divorced, or his sister moved out-of-state — Steuver lost the season.
"By 1991," he says, "Christmas seemed to be happening to everyone else."
So when he decided to write a sort-of exposÃ© on Christmas during 2006, he envisioned that it might be a book about the ugly side of the holiday, including sweatshops and "oppressed elves." Instead, he headed for the Dallas ‘burb of Frisco.
The day after Thanksgiving, well before dawn, Steuver began his sojourn queuing up outside a major retail store with a forty-something single mother. Later, he signed up to be a volunteer "elf" for a phenomenally energetic woman who started a business decorating million-dollar homes for hundreds of dollars an hour, and who desperately wanted Steuver to believe in Christmas. Before the week was out, Steuver had spent time learning about bulbs from a couple whose house is so famous for its light show that a video of it went viral.
While in Frisco, Steuver visited megachurches, partly to watch the single mother (a tech volunteer) in action, and partly as mere voyeur. While helping the decorator, he espied secrets of the too-rich; when he witnessed an emotional and angry family dinner-table debate over the war in Iraq, he compassionately turned off his inner-journalist; and when learning about giving for charity, he discovered that being a snoop can sometimes burst one’s bubble.
Still, he says, "It is entirely possible that I suck at all of this Christmasy goodness."
I beg to differ. Much like opening a present wrapped in too much tissue paper, to read Tinsel is to pick apart Christmas and its meanings, layer upon layer, before you finally reach a gem.
Steuver is witty and affectionate in regard to the three families of "elves" that helped him explore the frenzy that Christmas has become. He’s gently sneering, and oh-so-funny. He doesn’t insult, but he’s willing to cast light on silliness and spoiledness, and things people do in a quest for the "perfect" holiday. In short, Steuver is a superbly saucy and cynical chronicler of just one facet of Christmas, and I loved this book.
If you’re looking for some bite to your Christmas reading, look for this drolly merry and wonderful holiday book. Tinsel definitely sparkles.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 18, 2009.