What makes a Christmas "authentic"?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 24 2009 7:08 AM

The New Holiday Tradition

What's an "authentic" Christmas celebration?

"Tinsel" by Hank Stuever.

Actual tinsel doesn't get much airtime in Tinsel, Hank Stuever's takedown of the middle-American Christmas. None of the people he writes about seems to use it; none of the towns he drives through is adorned in it. But Stuever doesn't have to explain his title. We all know what tinsel represents come Christmastime: the cheap, the tacky, the lowbrow.

Tinsel is easily the world's most disdained Christmas decoration, sometimes treated more as a disease to be cured than a decoration to be enjoyed alongside nutcrackers and strands of lights. Why does it come in for so much derision? Probably because in this natural-medicine, organic-cosmetics, local-food-obsessed era, tinsel is totally, unabashedly fake. Even the much-maligned artificial Christmas tree tries to look real (most of the time). But don't try to pretend the shiny, silvery, stringy stuff of which tinsel is made appears in nature.

For three Christmases in a row, Stuever decamps from Washington (where he is a "professional snarkist" for the Washington Post's Style section) to Frisco, Texas, a booming exurb 30 miles from Dallas. On his "search for America's Christmas present," he eagerly points out every less-than-authentic aspect of Christmas that he observes in the lives of his subjects. Given his choice of subjects, he has plenty of material.

In Frisco, he follows three families as they prepare for each Christmas in 2006, 2007, and 2008. There's Caroll, a single mom who works at the sort of megachurch where the Rev. True Religion Jeans preaches health, wealth, and personal fulfillment. There's Jeff, the architect of the most spectacular Christmas light show in Frisco. And then there's Tammie, the bubbly woman who's a stay-at-home mom every month except December, when she pulls 18-hour days decking other people's halls with Christmas kitsch.

It's Tammie who provides Stuever with the title of the first section of his book. When he asks her whether she or her clients ever spring for real trees or real greenery on the mantel, she shakes her head. "Fake is okay here," she says.

Fake may be OK with Tammie, but it is not all right with Stuever. He chronicles everything in Frisco that smacks of falsity with the same fervor with which Tammie attacks her clients' banisters. Their decorations are not old enough ("They seek out brand-new 'vintage' ornaments"). Their garlands are not native enough ("alien foliage, things not ever seen in nature").  Their town squares are not authentic enough ("You'll know you're there by the faux period architecture").

But this sniping about the fakeness of it all raises a question Stuever never answers: What's so bad about fake? Furthermore, what would a real Christmas in Frisco, and its cousins across America, even look like? If authentic means old, then the residents of Frisco are fresh out of luck.

We like to think that our Christmas celebrations are born out of longstanding traditions rooted in the history and culture of our homes. Many familiar traditions—holly, mistletoe, evergreens—were outgrowths of natural materials that were available in Europe, where the modern Christmas began. Personal traditions like the Christmas Eve church service or Christmas dinner at Grandma's are often matters of family practice, sometimes so entrenched that they're never brought up for discussion. Until someone moves.

The supposedly organic origins of Christmas are challenged by the development of the modern exurb. Vast swaths of land-rich states like Texas, Arizona, and California have been transformed into sparkling new subdivisions that left little of the natural environment intact. The brand-new homes and schools of these bedroom communities are planted on fields that used to be home to cotton and cattle. (Stuever's subjects tell him " '[t]here were just cows' where the Outback Steakhouse and the Red Lobster and the Bed Bath & Beyond are.")

The residents of these new American cities settled in Frisco and its ilk within the last few years, deposited by corporate moving vans hundreds of miles from hometowns and extended families and generations-old Christmas traditions. They've lost the infrastructure of Christmas. So they're making it up as they go along, with botanically incorrect foliage and biblically inaccurate Christmas plays. When exurbanites do Christmas, they aren't flouting traditions—they're creating them from scratch. (OK, maybe from a mix.)

There would be something sort of troubling about a Wal-Mart-fueled Christmas in a German hamlet where the residents have been lighting up trees for centuries. But in Frisco, Texas, there are hardly any native trees, much less long-cherished traditions about how to decorate them.

Perhaps they could hang a single stand of lights hung on a scrubby mesquite tree in the middle of a windblown prairie. Except that there aren't any electrical outlets on the prairie. So you can see why the city's residents have built subdivisions and draped their town square in lights. Tammie is more right than she knows—and more legitimate than Stuever lets on—when she tells him, "We're makin' Christmas now!"

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