(Nicki DeMarco,Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The giant tri-flavor holiday popcorn tin sends a message, which is, “I was thinking of you, but not until I was already in the checkout aisle of Big Lots.”

It says, “Once again, I have drawn the Secret Santa name of a co-worker I do not know.” It says, “I’m a single 23-year-old man who has been invited to a potluck and does not own baking tins.” It says, “I may go to a party, in which case this is my hostess gift, or I may skip the party, in which case I will eat the popcorn, alone, while watching ‘The Holiday’ starring Cameron Diaz.”

The giant tri-flavor holiday popcorn tin is resigned to its lot in life, just as you are, with a blend of fat, salt, anxiety and coma, and that is what makes it the perfect gift of 2016.

It is the only unifying force that can bring together America today.

Let us buy one.

The giant tri-flavor holiday popcorn tin is sitting — part of a massive wall of festive $5 multi-gallon tubs — at the entrance of your local Walmart. Or Costco. Or Staples, always Staples, the office-supply overlords having realized that in the middle of December, people don’t feel the need for three-ring binders, they feel the need for popcorn in faux cheddar, butter and caramel varieties. These customers feel the need to put the popcorn next to the office microwave with a handwritten note: “Take some!” Watch, as someone from Chicago insists that in Chicago, everyone eats the popcorn by mixing the flavors. Watch, as someone else not from Chicago sneaks back and fastidiously separates the flavors back into their original partitions, kernel by kernel.

“I have an aunt who always gives the tins to me,” says Nathan Britten, who works in the insurance industry in Oklahoma City. “So I this year I re-gifted it to my office. I put it in the break room and figured somebody would eat it. Everyone ate it. This tin was special — it had caramel, cheese and kettle instead of butter. My power ranking is the caramel corn first, followed by cheese and then the kettle. I have no idea where my aunt gets these. Or where they come from. Man, where do they come from?”

Let us discover where they come from, by flipping over a giant tri-flavor tin and reading the label on the bottom:

The popcorn comes from North Prairie, Wis., home of Gourmet Gift Concepts, which sells 4.5 million tins each holiday season. The rest of the year they sell the popcorn in vending machines, along with pretzels, cheese curls and Zesty Ranch Corn Chips. But their raison d’être is giant tri-flavor popcorn tins.

On a recent afternoon, the chief executive of Gourmet Gift Concepts, a man named Tim Fromm, was reached on his cellphone: “If you lined up all of our holiday popcorn tins that we produced in 2016,” Fromm says, “you could start at the White House and end at Fenway Park in Boston.”

Fromm has been in the popcorn business for the better part of two decades, and he knows what sells. “Lab puppies on a tin are always going to be your number-one seller. A snowman might come second. And Santa — unfortunately for Santa, he’s always last.” (Fromm thinks Santa is too denominational.)


(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

“Some customers tell us the best part of a Gourmet Select tin is the delicious popcorn, others tell us it’s the usage of the tin as storage,” says Gourmet Gift Concept’s website. “See below for just a few of its many after-uses.” Some of the after-uses and their potential contents include: Waste Basket. Jewelry. Golf Balls. Pens. Shoes. Pet Food Storage.

“I was in the Kmart on 34th Street, looking for sweaters to wear to an ugly-Christmas-sweater party,” says Joanne Nosuchinsky, a one-time Fox News contributor and former Miss New York USA. “And they had a whole display of the tins with Rudolph, and snowmen, and snowflakes and what have you. I brought it to the party, and at first it was like, ‘Really, Joanne, with the popcorn?’ But then I have to tell you that everyone at that party went back to the tin multiple times. I brought little cups so everyone wasn’t digging into it with gross flu hands. It made everyone feel better.”

Somewhere, there are people who buy their giant tri-color popcorn tins not from Kmart, but from Garrett, the fancy original holiday popcornmaker, where a tin can run $80. Somewhere, there are people who prefer Harry & David nut brittles, or those snack trays that come with summer sausage and stone-ground crackers.

Those gifts have their roles, but they are not the role of the giant tri-flavor holiday popcorn tin, whose main role is this: Taking down any giant tin requires the participation and dedication of many people. It cannot be accomplished alone. It requires people of varying taste buds and eating styles all working together, putting aside their differences in favor of one common goal.

Republicans, attack the cheese. Democrats, to the caramel. Leave the butter to the undecideds, the nonvoters, the rejected secretary of state candidates.

In a year that felt like wall-to-wall exhaustion and misery, we need a measure of mindless, bland snacking. We need something that makes us realize that Americans can work together on something, and that thing is the giant tri-flavor holiday popcorn tin.

It’s not the greatest snack. But in 2016, you take what you can get. And use your new tin as a wastebasket.