What reviewers say about Tinsel:


Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present is the true story — sometimes odd, sometimes funny, and sometimes sad — of three consecutive Christmas seasons that I spent observing three families in the well-off Dallas exurb of Frisco, Texas.

This book is a journey deep into the plastic heart of crowded malls, competitive holiday bazaars, collectible snow villages, Angel Trees, extravagant church Nativity pageants, sweet-faced Nanas and Grammas wearing BeDazzled reindeer sweaters, megawatt lights displays, genuinely-bearded Santas, and McMansion rooms decked out in high-end artificial greenery.

I’ve always been fascinated by how people act at Christmas — how hard we seek its happiness and beauty, and how quickly the season can turn melancholy. I’m interested in the ways people work to preserve (or improve on) a collective myth.

For a long time I’ve wanted to do a nonfiction project that chronicles the experience of suburban families during the holiday season. When you think about it, American literature and cinema usually tell Christmas in a purely fictional or loosely historical frameworks. There are a lot of Yule clichés out there, most of them on TV or in movies, a pathetic number of them starring Tim Allen or Vince Vaughn. Very few journalists have tried to capture Christmas as it is actually lived in the present day.

In Tinsel I follow the stories of three families as they shop, decorate, and pray their way through the nation’s most over-the-top celebration in 2006, 2007, and the economically downbeat denouement of 2008. The main characters are:

  • Tammie Parnell and family, Christmas 2008. Tammie, a busy mom and volunteer, has a side business called Two Elves with a Twist, decorating people’s houses for Christmas. From left: Blake, Tad, Tammie and Emily. (And Toby, in jingle-bell collar.) Photo credit Courtney PerryTammie Parnell, a gated-community wife and supermom who runs her own Christmas decorating business. She charges her clients up to $1,000 a day to put up their artificial trees, garland and other trinkets, even as it distracts her from the cozy, perfect, family holiday she envisions.

  • The Trykoskis – Bridgette and Jeff – at Christmastime 2008. Behind them is their house, which becomes the most popular destination in Frisco, Texas, every December. Photo credit Courtney PerryJeff and Bridgette Trykoski, who own that house every community has, the one with cars lined up around the block to see the lights display, which, at Jeff and Bridgette’s place, dance in time to music. Now Jeff has been hired to create a display three times as big at Frisco’s newly developed town square. But what’s life like inside the brightest house in town?

  • Caroll and Marissa Cavazos, Christmas 2008. Caroll and Marissa lead busy lives after work and school – at their church, Celebration Covenant, and with acting classes for Marissa. The whole family, including Caroll’s older children, likes to get up early and hit the big sales on Black Friday. Photo credit  Courtney PerryCaroll Cavazos, a hardworking single mom who struggles stay upbeat during the production of her megachurch’s Christmas pageant, focusing on the “reason for the season” even as she finds herself navigating the throngs at Best Buy at the Black Friday sales.

I understand that some people might be offended by Tinsel’s occasional irreverence and glum tone. You should know that I’m a bit of a snark, who long ago gave up on the religious and retail demands of Christmas. If you’re looking for something warmer and fuzzier, try to find a book with a cover that shows snow, a cottage, or a dog (preferably all three).

But if you’ve ever laughed at the ridiculousness of Christmas, or sat despondently in the Target parking lot in late December, or bawled your eyes out on the drive home from seeing your family — well, come right in.

Tinsel wound up being a book about something much more than the economic data of our half-trillion-dollar holiday. It’s a story about people living in the newest kind of America — a land of new malls, new houses, big churches, easy credit, and freshly built highways. As I write in the book’s prologue: “I wanted this story to be about Christmas but also everything else: our weird economy, our modern sense of home, our oft-broken hearts, and our notions of God.”

My goal in Tinsel is to measure what we’ve become against the ancient rituals of what we’ve always been — and to try to do it with poignant and wry details. I hope you’ll check it out.


  1. 5 Great Christmas Longreads - AJR.org on December 23, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    […] Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present by Hank […]

Leave a Comment