Hank Stuever on Frisco, Tex., the 'Tinsel' town that's always sold on Christmas

The Post's Hank Stuever ventures to the Texas suburbs to find out what the holiday season brings to those down south.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Excerpted from "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present" by Hank Stuever. © 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

I set out to tell a story about Christmas, but also about everything else: our weird economy, our modern sense of home, our oft-broken hearts, and our notions of God. The biggies. To tell it, I turned to a world made possible by chain stores, in an American economy mainly powered by the magical thinking of retail.

Where novelists and the makers of romantic holiday comedy movies exaggerate and fictionalize the Christmas past (cozy Dickens villages, snowy mornings, Cameron Diaz and Jude Law in turtleneck sweaters), I desired something more true, to see the nation's half-trillion-dollar holiday in the high-definition light of the early 21st century, the real Christmas present, starting at the butt-crack of dawn in front of the big-box stores. I wanted to be there with hundreds of rabid consumers who'd waited all night for the melee of Black Friday to begin. I went looking for a country living not only on borrowed time, but also on borrowed grace.

Which is how I wound up in Frisco, a former farm town turned Dallas mega burb, north of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway, north of the President George Bush Turnpike; a place that grew in 15 years from 6,000 people to 100,000 people and, in the past decade, opened 7 million square feet of chain retail and restaurants.

I went toward the starter mansions. I went for the Sunday mornings at the giant churches, rockin' to those ring-tone power ballads for Christ. I longed to see neighbors compete to have the best holiday light displays. I wanted to bask in all that bless-your-heart. The hottie moms in pink feather boas and Ugg boots waiting in line at Starbucks; the hottie dads in camouflage hunting gear examining flat-screen upgrades at the Best Buy. I wanted all that. Lord, I wanted to borrow some grace, too.

I stuck a pushpin on a map.


I liked its endless strip malls and its sense of prefabricated wonder. I moved there in the easy-credit bliss of 2006, when there were still Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, when anyone could buy anything they wanted and pay for it some other day. By the time I finished my story two Christmases later, the air had gone out of things, like a listing inflatable Santa. It all turned into foreclosure gossip and everything-must-go sales. Yet I clung to the miracle of the place, noticing the ways in which Frisco seemed impervious even to this, the worst economy in decades.

Busy elves

Christmas in the suburbs brings forth this curiously heightened sense of the solo-entrepreneurial, beyond the usual Pampered Chef and Mary Kay hawkers.

By October, it feels as if everyone in Frisco is selling anything with Santa on it. Some people have day jobs and sell stuff on the side. Others do it full time, stockpiling all year for the church bazaar circuit. For some it's a hobby gone haywire, often with Jesus as the unseen business partner.

Tammie Parnell (who was then 44) is a wife and mother of two, one of those gated-community supermoms who has volleyball schedules, tutor times and carpool arrangements abuzz in the BlackBerry that is her brain. When Christmas comes, she fires up her one-woman business, Two Elves With a Twist, which involves Parnell charging customers up to $1,000 a day to do their interior decorating. ("Why Two Elves?" I ask. Long story short, the first elf couldn't hack it after a year. Too much work, too intense -- too much Christmas? For all I know, the remains of the first elf are neatly bubble-wrapped in a Rubbermaid tub, squirreled away in Parnell's three-car garage.)

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