If there's a war on Christmas, no one has told the publishing industry about it; the deluge of new (and retooled) Christmas-related books has been under way since well before Halloween. Here are three of the best I've come across. • One is an insightful anthropological look at the holiday's current shape, another a famously strange writer's mordantly funny reminiscence of unsatisfactory Yules, the third a charmingly funny confection of boomer nostalgia.
Shiny, not so bright
If you find yourself wondering why on earth you were standing in line at 6 a.m. on Black Friday to spend money you don't have, you might find the answer in Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present.
To write this fascinating book, Washington Post pop culture reporter Hank Stuever spent three Christmas seasons, 2006 through 2008, in Frisco, Texas, a rawly new upscale Dallas exurb.
Steuver hangs out with several Frisco residents whose lives are, one way or another, driven by the Christmas season. Tammie Parnell is a stay-at-home mom except when her one-woman business gears up. She's paid hundreds of dollars an hour to kit out vast McMansions with acres of fake greenery, multiple Christmas trees and all manner of themed decor (Have a Dallas Cowboys Christmas!), her clients too busy or inept to "get their Christmas on" themselves.
Jeff Trykoski is a systems engineer who mounts a sound-and-light display at his home so massive it requires traffic control of the sightseers. Trykoski won't discuss his electric bill; just the control boards for the show cost $10,000. But within a couple of years, his obsession with Christmas, like Parnell's, has become a business — one so large he's ordering lights from China by the cargo container.
Stuever meets Caroll Cavazos in one of those Black Friday lines, outside Best Buy. She's a struggling single mother, but she's there to buy two computers and a washer and dryer for her not particularly grateful family. Her Christmas spirit is shaped by her megachurch, where "prosperity gospel" is preached by a pastor who apparently skipped Matthew 19:24 in his Bible study.
Journeying through the shopping malls and big-box stores and charity food banks, even the recycling plant that sorts all the holiday detritus and ships it back to China for the manufacture of next year's Christmas, Stuever unwraps both appalling consumerism and genuine holiday spirit — sometimes in the same package — and treats the people he writes about with respect and affection, even when they're doing things he can't quite believe.
His choice of time span adds another layer to his story: an arc from the boom of '06, when Frisco's residents deployed their credit cards like there was no tomorrow, to '08, when Parnell drives through gated subdivisions past the empty homes of former clients whose mortgages have been foreclosed.
A storied life
Stuever writes about other people's Christmases, but Augusten Burroughs writes about his own. You Better Not Cry, the latest book by the author of Running With Scissors and A Wolf at the Table, gathers seven stories of Christmases past, none of them exactly suitable for Norman Rockwell illustrations.
Fans of Burroughs will recognize his sardonic, profane voice and gritty biographical background. He plays his dreadful childhood mostly for laughs in three of these stories. The title story details how he was disabused of his childish belief that Jesus and Santa Claus were the same person, with quite creepy results. And Two Eyes Made Out of Coal is a comic tale of his less than successful effort to make the fancy gingerbread house he saw in a magazine: "I had built a gingerbread public housing tenement, a little gingerbread slum." Claus and Effect slyly demonstrates when it's better not to get that pony you asked for.
The stories of his grownup Christmases are more complex. Ask Again Later and Why Do You Reward Me Thus? are both set during the depths of Burroughs' alcoholism, the first a queasily funny recounting of his experience of waking up in bed with Santa Claus and not being able to remember how it happened. The latter is a sort of Manhattan version of A Christmas Carol, with homeless people playing the roles of Burroughs' very own warning ghosts, bringing both horror and grace.
The last two are love stories. The Best and Only Everything, about finding and losing the love of his life, might crack your heart. And the last, Silent Night, is about the joys of domesticity, the survival of disaster — and Burroughs getting a merry Christmas at last.
A boomer's bonbon
With Burroughs, you have to get past a tortured and cynical exterior to find the sentimental guy within. Wally Lamb, author of I Know This Much Is True, presents no such obstacles. His new Christmas novella, Wishin' and Hopin', is as warmly, sweetly retro as a cupcake with red sprinkles.
Its narrator is Felix Funicello, a fifth-grader at St. Aloysius Gonzaga School in Lamb's familiar fictional town of Three Rivers, Conn., in 1964. His family has its claims to fame: Former Mouseketeer turned beach-movie star Annette Funicello is Felix's third cousin, and her photos decorate the bus station lunch counter his family runs. What's more, Felix's mom has qualified as a contestant in the nationally televised Pillsbury Bake-Off.
But Felix has plenty to worry about in his own little world: the schemes of his nemesis, goody-two-shoes Rosalie Twerski; the dirty jokes his friend Lonny tells that Felix doesn't quite understand; and the exotic new Russian student in his class, Zhenya, who plays like a boy but is built like, well, Annette Funicello.
After the fifth grade's teacher, Sister Dymphna, suffers a nervous breakdown, her theatrical replacement, Madame Marguerite, recruits the class for a series of tableaux vivants (Felix thinks that has something to do with tablecloths) in place of the traditional Christmas play — a plan that has hilariously disastrous results. (I'm guessing the movie deal for Wishin' and Hopin' is already signed.)
This book is a bonbon for any baby boomer who remembers the time when the Beatles were the new sensation, big sisters curled their hair with Spoolies and Ronald Reagan was a has-been actor who hosted 20 Mule Team Borax's Death Valley Days. Lamb gets Felix's voice just right, and he does a spot-on job of evoking the special joys and trials of parochial school in the '60s — Felix even finds out what's under Sister Dymphna's wimple. Put a bow on this book and warm somebody's heart.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.