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Hank Stuever discusses 'Tinsel' and the modern meaning of Christmas

The Post's Hank Stuever ventures to the Texas suburbs to find out what the holiday season brings to those down south.

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Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 11:00 AM

What does Christmas mean to you? What do you love (and what do you dread) about it? Post staff writer Hank Stuever discusses his new book, Tinsel and wants to hear your stories of holiday celebration.

Watch: Hank talks "Tinsel" with Craig Ferguson on the "Late Late Show."

Read an excerpt

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Hank Stuever: Hi everyone. P.G. Wodehouse first said, and then Noel Coward reportedly used to say in his Christmas cards every year:

"Christmas is at our throats again."

Is it at yours? Wanna talk? We can also talk about my book, "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present," in which I followed three exurban families through three years of America's half-trillion dollar cultural steamroller known as Christmas. Join the fun! I want to hear about your joy and grief at this time of year. Let's do it to it.

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Memphis: Do you see any way to put the reindeer back in the barn or is this runaway holiday just going to keep getting bigger and bigger until our heads pop and we are singing Jingle Bells in July?

Hank Stuever: It keeps getting bigger and bigger, I think, not until our heads pop but until the global economy (and such problems as "lack of renewable energy resources") pops and people aren't able to buy mass quantities of imported goods the way we're accustomed to doing. I challenge you to decorate a Christmas tree without one thing on it made in China. Not because I'm a Green Grinch, but because that's the story of Christmas now.

What's interesting is how much we long for "simple" Christmases, the kind we've heard Meemaw and Peepaw talk about: one simple toy per child, an orange in your stockin', singing carols by the fire, THE END. If America really endeavored to have that sort of simple, low-key Christmas, the global economy would plunge into a death spiral. It's interesting the even now, the key to economic recovery hinges on you and me heading back to the mall with Visa.

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E. Rhotika NYC: My parents keep giving me gifts at xmas. I've asked them not to, I'm 35+, its embarrassing and they should be finishing saving for their retirements. Any ideas on how to convince them to stop?

Hank Stuever: This is one of the hardest things to bring up, isn't it? I like the alternatives: Let's simply spend time together. Or let's promise to take one another to dinner out in the next couple of months. Or let's share theater tickets. Or -- MANY people claim to want this -- let's spend what we would have spent on a worthy charity.

I would look at it as a long-term goal. Keep asking every year for this.

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Fever althrough the xmas season: I'll be spending this Christmas in the hospital and Skyping in on my family's chaotic gift exchange. In your research for "Tinsel" did you come across any stories about how technology has changed the way we experience and celebrate Christmas?

Hank Stuever: That's a nice way technology has changed Christmas. Some other ways:

Me: Here, I got you a gift card.

You: Great! (Opens laptop, goes to OldNavy.com or whatever, and spends it right there in front of you.) I just bought myself a sweater!

Me: Wow.

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snow day, DC: Hi Hank, I've always loved your stuff --bought 2 copies of the books for presents. Any suspicion that the snow day yesterday was a pact between the govt and businesses to make up for Saturday's lost shopping? Since I made it out to go to brunch and finish my Christmas shopping yesterday, I guess I probably could have made it to the office...

Hank Stuever: I'm sure that's exactly what happened. Since workplace productivity plummets this time of year, saving the retail economy is really the most important work any of us could be doing right now. Haven't you seen the CNBC crawl? Retailers are worried! Ho-ho-hum! Etc.

Get out there and show Banana Republic that you really, really care.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I just made my holiday party playlist and then stood back and looked at our traditional songs: "Chanukay Song" by Adam Sandler, "Give the Jew Girl Toys" by Sarah Silverman, "Happy XMas" by John Lennon, "The Christmas Song" by Alvin and the Chipmunks, "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" by the Irish Rovers, and "Snoopy and the Red Baron" by the Royal Guardsmen.

At least I will always have these tradional holiday songs year after year.

Hank Stuever: Nice! My favorite songs this year have been "Another Christmas Song" by Stephen Colbert (followed closely by "Can I Interest You in Some Hannukah?" by Colbert and Jon Stewart, might have the title wrong -- the whole Stephen Colbert Christmas Special soundtrack is tops!) and I also like "Christmas Day in the Sun" by Hot Hot Heat, because it's exactly what I plan to do this year.

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Miles Away from DC: For me its not the christmas season till I hear the Waitress song "Christmas Wrapping," on the radio. I have rules about this. I can not play it on my ipod, it must be heard on the radio, preferably while driving. Then and only then is it really Christmas time for me.

Hank Stuever: "You mean you forgot / cranberries too?"

Great one. I also love hearing in the John and Yoko Christmas song IN THE CAR, usually on Christmas Eve. "War is over / If you want it" and then Yoko chimes in: A velly Melly Chlistmas!... and Happy noo yeeel...."

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UMiteLuvMi Argentina: Other than Sociable, the cat, any other Hank Stuever (as a kid) xmas stories?

Hank Stuever: Ha ha. (If anyone wants that story, please buy a book and turn to p. 107!) There's another story in Tinsel, later on, about my nightmares about the Christmas tree still being up in February. (Did anyone ever have Christmas-tree-still-up anxiety dreams? Or was I just one weird child?)

An interviewer asked me if there were every any books I received for Christmas that really changed me, and I said YES, Christmas in 8th grade, I received "The Official Preppy Handbook," which, in my unfortunate world, was like the Bible.

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SECRET Santa : Dry holiday work parties are not fun. I long for some spiked egg nog during the day and catching an executive assistant and and office manager on the copier. Would you please do a list of the 100 best companies to work for that have awesome holiday parties.

Hank Stuever: Maybe you should move to the San Fernando Valley and seek office work in a porn studio. They might have fun parties.

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Reston, VA: Do you think there's such thing as seasonal hoarding? Your beautifully rendered characters in Tinsel all yearn to be needed and find fulfillment in collecting, displaying, presenting.... There should be a word for this compulsion. Achequisition, maybe?

Hank Stuever: Achequisition.

Wow, that's almost perfect. Thank you. I think all of us have a touch of achequisition, especially at Christmas, working so hard to make everything just so, even people.

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Washington: Jesus was not born in December, right? Why should I buy any of this crap? The whole thing is based on a lie.

Put it this way: Let's say I was told to celebrate October 9th as Pearl Harbor Day, and that I should go to church and grieve for all the dead people. A total lie. I would say, stuff it, jerkos.

So I say to Christmas, stuff it, jerkos.

Am I right or am I right?

Hank Stuever: Yow!

Here is something I've learned, something sort of half-Vulcan, half-Earthling: There is such a thing as being factual and certain and logical. Then there is insurmountable issue known as "the heart." The heart wants to be comforted, loved, and told a wonderful story. I vote heart. There are 364 other days to dwell on the bitter truths, which I do.

The half-trillion dollars Americans spend trying to mend their hearts at Christmas? It's a pickle. It's a mind[bleep]. We virtually guarantee ourselves some letdown. This is why I wrote this book. To _examine_ that.

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TV: You gave a good interview with Craig Ferguson. I wish you had more book signings in Virginia.

Hank Stuever: Thanks. I had a very nice time on the "Late Late Show" and got to tell Sigourney Weaver how much Lt. Ripley from the "Alien" movies has been my frequent inspiration and motivational speaker -- my Tony Robbins and Paolo Coehlo all rolled into one. She's so _strong._ Everyone should do as Ripley says.

Sigourney said, "Many times I stop and ask myself: What Would Ripley Do?"

Sorry about no more readings on the schedule. If someone invites me -- to speak to a group, a class, or bookstore -- I'm game. But seeing as the main subject of the book is Christmas, I think I'm almost done. Until the paperback release next fall! Ho ho ho!

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Rockville: Hank:

I don't know Frisco all that well, but I did live in Denton for 12 years in the '80s. Can you sum it up in any way. You do know that was "Bonnie and Clyde" country at one time.

Some of the reviewers said you were from Oklahoma. I thought it was New Mexico for some reason.

Hank Stuever: If you lived in Denton in the '80s then you know something about the growth on all those prairies and pastures where towns like Frisco and Denton have boomed. Frisco was a farm town into the 1990s; now it's got 100,000+ people living in homes that average 3,000 sf; there's also 7 million sf of chain retail shopping and dining in 1-mile concentrated area around Stonebriar Centre mall. It's the very picture of 21st century America. Such as Rockville, only newer. A drive across the country on interstates will take you past 100 or more Friscos.

I was born n' reared in Oklahoma City. I lived in Albuquerque from 1990-96, when I was a reporter at the late, great Albuquerque Tribune.

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Dupont Circle, DC: I have tried to get my mom and sister to stop buying me presents to no avail. I buy an extra ticket or two on my Arena Stage subscription and take my sister. We go to lunch and then to the play. We get to gossip and have a good time. I'd much rather do that than have another Christmas sweater.

Hank Stuever: That's what I want, too. I think this sounds perfect.

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Achequisition: Shouldn't this concept be copyrighted by your esteemed colleague, Joel Achenbach?

Hank Stuever: Only if I can start pronouncing his name with a long A, like stomach ache. Ache-enbach.

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Re: Memphis: Years ago, I knew we were doomed when I saw stores stocking Valentine's Day items on January 2. Has life become simply the down time between holidays? Should we all simply leave our Christmas trees standing all year and change the ornaments with each holiday?

Hank Stuever: I met more than one lady who does this. IT CREEPS ME OUT. I also heard tell of women in the Dallas area who keep Christmas trees in spare walk-in closets, ready for the housekeeper to roll them on out in November. But that might have just been holiday apocrypha.

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Philadelphia: My children and I have been off the Christmas grid for quite some time (as in 8+ years).

Enduring the loss of my younger son two years ago has also contributed to our desire to stop the madness and learn about what's important.

We don't feel sorry for ourselves, we don't bemoan anyone their holiday traditions however the fact remains people don't seem to understand why we've made a decision to take a stand.

It's as if we're aliens between Black Friday and Christmas day.

Rather than spend ridiculous amounts of money on objects we don't need we'd rather spend time together.......it's refreshing, comforting at a time when most people are stressed beyond belief.

The only way to stop the madness is to literally stop perpetuating it.

Hank Stuever: I'm sorry to hear about your son. You've described a December that sounds remarkably, emotionally healthy, heartfelt, serene and enjoyable. No wonder you feel like aliens.

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Xmas Songs: Bob Rivers forever ruined me for the Nutcracker Suite, excuse me, the Buttcracker Suite.

But I take solace in the fact that I didn't invent the inflatable manger decoration. It's not the blasphemy that bothers me, it's the tackiness. Why not dress the baby Jesus in a Git R Done onesie?

Hank Stuever: Hahaha.

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New England: I have many Facebook friends who are of the "put Christ back in Christmas school." They frequently proclaim that "Jesus is the reason for the season" then get annoyed that Wal-Mart and Target say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Shouldn't they be happy that the reason for the season is not being tainted by blatant consumerism and mega-retailers. They fail to see the irony when I point it out to them.

Hank Stuever: You will always lose the war on the war on Christmas, because it is being fought by people who've been convinced that Christmas in America is in any way endangered. They fail to realize that Wall Street and retailers have only seen BIG profits in the secular expression of the holiday, because that's the only way to get ALL the people to spend money and take part.

There's a wonderful little "hide" button to whisk away the status updates of people who annoy you. Just ask my Facebook friends, who I'm sure have all hidden my relentless book-promoting status updates.

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Arlington, VA: Hey, kudos to you for getting a blurb on your book in the New Yorker. And they sounded as if they almost liked it.

And for what it's worth, in our house Christmas doesn't start until Shane MacGowan sings "It was Christmas Eve, babe/in the drunktank..."

washingtonpost.com: Tinsel : The New Yorker

Hank Stuever: Sounds downright classic!

As for the New Yorker, they gave me the gift of one perfect sentence to extract and slap onto a future edition of Tinsel. What more could a boy ask for?

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Iowa: How (nationally) typical do you think those gold-encrusted Texas ladies are in their Christmas celebrating when compared to folks in other parts of the country? Are there regional differences or are we all spawned from the same cultural cookie cutters these days?

Hank Stuever: Among the responses I've had to Tinsel, this is one -- in which people say "yeah, but that's just Texas" in response to some of the images and scenes. Admittedly, the Junior League of Plano's Christmas bazaar brings out the glam and glitz, but I have to say, Collin County most reminds me of ANYWHERE, save for maybe the actually small, snowy New England villages where a tiny fraction of America celebrates a wintry, quaint holiday. The vast majority lives below the "White Christmas" snow line, in suburbs, and traverses malls and big churches, etc. There are of course so many regional differences and traditions (luminarias in Old Town Albuquerque, etc.), but ... NOT REALLY.

That doesn't make Christmas any less special, it just makes it what it is.

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Seattle: Coming at it from a Christian perspective (I know -- killjoy): Whether or not Jesus was born December 25 or October 3 or June 17 is immaterial -- the point is that it happened.

And -- I have found that the more I focus on that, the less I get caught up in the Holiday Industrial Complex, and the more I enjoy the celebration itself.

And I think I'd feel that as an atheist, subbing, I dunno, spirit of the season for the religious bent.

On the other hand, I DO love to make homemade eggnog with brandy and bourbon once a year. And stupid yard displays.

Hank Stuever: Balance, I think is what you're describing. Kudos.

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Arlington: Hank:

A sad passing, the Smokehole Caverns gift shop outside of Petersburg, WV, has been flattened. Thus the demise of Little Baby Chicken Jesus, who was the manger substitute for a human baby in this touching, fowl-oriented, glimpse of WV Christmas spirit.

Hank Stuever: No!

Can Christmas be saved?

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Santa Fe, New Mexico: Talk about form letters in Christmas Cards...what's good about them? what is bad?

Hank Stuever: The best thing about form letters is the gift of the opportunity to mock the person who sent them. Enjoy!

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Baltimore, MD: I must admit, I feel like a scrooge. This year, I really tried to emphasize to anyone who requested a wishlist, that if anyone chooses to give me a gift, I would rather it be functional and something I would use - a new pan to replace the very old one that got bent during a move, a new set of mixing bowls, a specific cookbook. So imagine my surprise when after telling my mother (at her request) the things that I would have use for, I receive a scarf to join the 30+ scarves I have accumulated over the years.

I am thankful my mother thought of me and that we were able to get together during the holidays. But am I terrible for thinking that if someone asks you what you want for Christmas, it would be insulting to now follow through with it? And is it even worse to get someone a gift that has absolutely no bearing on what their needs are?

Every year, I compile a wishlist (at her request) only for it to be ignored. Should I stop making my wishlist entirely and accept yet another scarf or trinket?

Hank Stuever: You should stop making the wishlist. You should say "I always get a kick of whatever you get me, so knock yourself out."

Years from now, when those scarves are no longer coming, hire a quilter to make you a Mom's Horrible, Endless Scarves quilt.

See why I'm not an advice columnist?

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Washington, DC: Just finished your book last night, as a matter of fact. Any updates on the families you followed?

Hank Stuever: The families are all doing quite well. Life is good in Frisco, Texas, and people are still shopping like there's no tomorrow, because maybe there is a tomorrow, and maybe there isn't.

They all liked parts of the book, and, naturally, they all had something in the book that they wish I hadn't put in or written a little differently, but I am happy to say that I look forward to hearing from them for many, many Christmases to come.

What I have done is that I've stopped reporting on them, or their feelings and thoughts and actions. So when people ask about them, I keep the answers short. You can of course, if you're in Texas, drive by and see the Trykoski lights -- either at the house or at Frisco Square. Go to firscochristmas.com. You can also find them on YouTube.

You can always join the congregation at Celebration Covenant Church, where Caroll goes.

And if you're lucky, Tammie will make room for you next year on her decorating schedule.

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Re: New England: Hank, you probably realize that the "war on Christmas" is really about bashing non-Christians. Our culture no longer treats Christianity as the default religion, and the Christmas warriors seem to feel threatened by this. I've heard the warriors criticize the saying of "Happy Holidays" by arguing that "we" celebrate Christmas in America. They either don't know or don't care that they're effectively disenfranchising the quarter of the nation's population that belongs to religious other than Christianity.

Hank Stuever: Gotcha.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Americans need to wake up and realize why they go to the malls, shops the internet to shop wildly at Christmas/Holiday time...

Subconsciously they realize they live in the best country on Earth and they are celebrating it. They are celebrating the freedoms our country has. How lucky we are to have the type of laws we have. They are celebrating the prosperity we usually have .

They are celebrating being Christians/Jewish /Muslim no matter what type. There i said it . I hope this gets posted. Thank you for taking my Question/Comment. Merry Christmas/Hannukah even though its over. And Good New Year.

Hank Stuever: THAT's what I wanted my book to be about, most of all. I wanted an accurate document of America (and its favorite holiday) at a moment in time when we had the most of everything, or felt like we did, and were encourage to have more, more, more, yet reminded constantly that it wasn't about all this stuff, that there was a reason for the season and all that.

I would like Tinsel to show up as a footnote in some future historian's dissertation about life in America before the big (collapse? apocalypse? flood? peak oil?) and be able to say: This is what it felt like, then, at Christmastime.

Otherwise, all the other Christmas literature from our era will be memoirs (Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck, Augusten Burroughs) or soft-focus fiction.

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Danz, AK: What was your pitch to your subjects? How did you convince them to let you into their lives, and why do you think they agreed to it?

Hank Stuever: I told them I wanted to follow everyday, suburban families through the experience of Christmas in America NOW, not some way-back-when.

As we got to know one another, my demands on their time increased: I want to see you grocery shop, go to church, pick up the kids from volleyball, go to the mall -- just about anything.

By Christmastime, I was pretty much with each of the families all the time. On Christmas morning, one of them left the front door unlocked for me so I could let myself in and watch them wake up and open presents -- I didn't want a doorbell to ruin the moment of waking.

Why did they let me? I can't quite say. I do think there's something to having a guy show up in your life and be completely and totally interested in everything you say and do. Some of the people in my book (I won't say which ones) had not really had someone listen to them as closely as I listen, maybe? That might be part of it.

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re: Memphis: last year my local Target was putting their Valentine's crap out on Christmas Eve. I guess they figured I had bought every can of fake snow I needed when they rolled those out in July.

Hank Stuever: That's depressing.

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Madison WI: Sorry I haven't read the book yet-it's on my list! I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who doesn't want more stuff. Last year my parents gave my husband and I a gift certificate to a restaurant and it was a revelation! Good food, friends, conversation was the best present. I only wish they were closer so we could have gone together! Here's hoping for another one this xmas!

Hank Stuever: Yum!

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Fort Worth, Texas: How were you so brilliant to know to write this examination of Christmas excess right during an economic downturn when so many of us are forced to examine our own over-indulgences? Could you see it coming?

Hank Stuever: I wasn't that brilliant, but I can say that I went into this project in 2006 feeling like something was seriously wrong: People buying houses with no money down and no stated income? Replacing all your electronics, from iPod and cell phone to giant televisions, every 2 years? It just didn't make sense. It gave off a vibe of doom.

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Pass on the gifts: We celebrate Christmas big time, but not extravagantly. We always got things we wanted (e.g. class ring, instrument we played, letterman jackets, game system) but that we also would use along with clothes that we needed/wanted. And always a family gift (in 1992 a stereo with a CD/tape/turntable) we were excited about.

This year when asked what I wanted I said "earmuffs that wrap around the back of your head" and after much thought "a blanket chest" (dad will have to make this one because I can't find one in the price range that is big enough).

My daughter who is 13 is getting clothes, a couple books, and a stereo she can plug her mp3 player into. She was also getting a coat tree for her room but I couldn't find one of those either so I'll have to make it.

My boyfriend is getting socks, underwear, and undershirts. Everyone will have Pez dispensers in their stockings, it's a tradition.

Hank Stuever: This sounds totally normal. Imagine having a reporter in the room while everyone unwraps all this and he writes it all down and asks how much it all cost.

Good times!

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Portland, Oregon: Hi Hank,

I loved the book. I have purchased two as gifts this year.

Two questions: 1) Have you seen any houses with the "Santa kneeling at the manger" Christmas yard display? For some reason, my friends who consider themselves the least devout seem the most upset over this new trend. This image kept returning to me as I read your chapter on the "kountry."

2) I was quite struck by the theme of belief in the book. Many residents of Frisco seem to value having deep convictions -- about Santa, about Jesus, and about what Christmas should be -- more than any other aspects of their lives.

I was struck at the very low voting numbers you reported, the lack of books in the McMansions Tammie decorated, and extreme lack of respect for local history. What do you think are the wider implications for a culture that asks people to "believe" rather than "do" or "think"?

Hank Stuever: Your questions are all of the sort that I hoped Tinsel would raise in its readers. I haven't seen Santa kneeling at any mangers, but I think people could really go for that. They are easily able to switch story tracks between Bethlehem and the north pole.

As to your last point -- "Believe" rather than "think" and "do" -- I have to say that I'm inclined to agree, based on what I saw and reported. It wasn't all negative, though. Belief and faith can do wonders, here and there, especially if someone is getting the proper kudos and attentions for believing and acting on faith. It's a conspicuous show of charity and religion.

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Brooklyn, NY: Mister Stuever: Loved your book!!! What's your feeling on families who pick names and just buy one present for one family member rather than everyone buying everyone a present. Buzz kill or reasonable recession decision?

Hank Stuever: Reasonable and potentially fun -- where it gets dull, I think, is when everyone has to submit a specific list of presents they want to receive, and people are only allowed to buy from the list. Where's the spontaneous joy?

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Hank Stuever: Thanks, everyone, for coming to the chat. If you want to ask me anything at all about Tinsel, please visit my web site, hankstuever.com ... You can see photos of the families in the book, and of Frisco, and read all sorts of information about the book, take my Christmas shopping survey, and check out my blog. Me, me, me.

But also: You, you, you.

Have a wonderful, merry and very bright Christmas, filled with hilarity and absurdity and, I hope calm. And Happy Hanukkuh, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Festivus for the Rest of Us. Be happy.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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