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Originally published December 4, 2009 at 4:06 PM | Page modified December 6, 2009 at 6:09 PM

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Corrected version

Book review

'Tinsel': an American Christmas in the heart of Texas

In his new book "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present," Washington Post author Hank Stuever goes looking for the apotheosis of a contemporary American Christmas, and finds it in the small but extremely well-lit town of Frisco, Texas. Stuever will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Hank Stuever

The author of "Tinsel" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600;

'Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present'

by Hank Stuever

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 331 pp., $24

Christmas remains our most over-the-top, consumer-oriented holiday. It belongs in another category — there are holidays, and then there's Christmas.

Take the house of Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski, the couple from the North Texas town of Frisco featured in Hank Stuever's "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Theirs is an unassuming, one story, three-bedroom, red-brick house — until Christmas. Then it transforms into the greatest neighborhood light show in Texas: 50,000 Christmas lights dancing on cue to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Wizards in Winter."

You need to see this. Plug "Frisco Christmas Lights Wizards" into your search engine — already 3.4 million hits. Stuever observes that "Wizards in Winter" has become "Stairway to Heaven" for men who put up thousands of Christmas lights on their houses and program them to blink to music. The Trykoskis' story is one of many in "Tinsel," in which Stuever sets out to document how Americans celebrate the season by spending three Christmases (2006-2008) in Frisco, Texas, population 100,000. Frisco boasts one of the nation's highest concentrations of retail square footage. At Frisco's Stonebriar Centre, you can hear Nat King Cole sing "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" — in September.

A pop-culture writer for The Washington Post who was recently named its television critic, Stuever writes that Christmas is "the single largest event in American communal life, intersecting with every aspect of religion, culture, commerce and politics." The bigness of Christmas resisted incorporation into one coherent story. In "Tinsel," the history and the business of Christmas are laced into how one town celebrates Christmas, and it reads like two separate books.

Stuever's deft eye for the quirks in American culture focuses on three Texas families who celebrate the holiday but also seem a bit blinded by it.

The Trykoskis' home light show was so popular the city contracted homeowner Jeff Trykoski to create a light show for Frisco. He came through, with 150,000 lights, six snow machines and 55-gallon drums of deionized water for making quality snow. But Jeff seemed so obsessed with his light shows that he spent little alone time with his wife during Christmas, preferring to show off his decorated house, rather than visit out-of-town relatives.

Tammie Parnell sets up Christmas trees and displays for other families, but is always chasing Christmas herself. She "surrounds herself in the artifice of Christmas, sincerely moved by the beauty of plastic garlands, looking so hard for the total moment, and always about to miss it because she's so busy looking," Stuever writes.

Caroll Cavazos saved money during the year to buy Christmas gifts, standing in line at Best Buy at 4 a.m. on Black Friday. She's a single mom who attends a megachurch with a Starbucks in the vestibule.

"Tinsel" is an uneven but hilariously entertaining account about our Christmas culture. Stuever didn't find the common man's celebration of Christmas, rather a few fanatics, of course from Texas, where they do everything big.

Still, "Tinsel" will make you re-evaluate how you spend your Christmas, and whether you're so blinded by the sale signs and the spectacle that you forget what Christmas is about.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or

Information in this article, originally published Dec. 4, 2009, was corrected Dec. 6, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Hank Stuever in some instances. It has been corrected.

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