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Shop Class

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In Tinsel, Washington Post Style-section writer Hank Stuever immerses himself in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, with some of the Americans who help make Christmas a half-trillion-dollar shopping event. Tinsel follows three Frisconians through the all-consuming shopping event season: Tammie Parnell, who has made a career out of decorating the homes of affluent neighbors; Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski, whose light display can be seen from outer space; and Caroll Cavazos, a single mother and devout Christian looking for the soul of the holiday. In this excerpt, Steuver describes an annual holiday shopping event in downtown Frisco.

Several thousand people show up for Frisco’s official Merry Main Street at Frisco Square on Saturday night, December 2, in spite of a cold snap. They have occasional looks of genuine glee on their faces, alternating with puzzled inertia, as if unsure of the point or what to do next.[…]

Parents everywhere are pushing double-wide strollers through the crowd, while others are in a constant state of documenting their children’s evening with digital video recorders, desperate to make the footage become lasting Christmas memories. Parents ask their kid every few seconds if they’re having a good time and get them to pose and tell the camera: Smile, Tyler. Smile, Kayleigh. Smile, Isabelle. Smile, Jayden, Aidan, Jaycen, Keelan.

The longest line by far—a two-hour wait—is for the Merry Main Street Kids’ Holiday Store. Held in the largest of Frisco Square’s vacant storefronts, the Kids’ Holiday Store lets children wander through tables of merchandise (most of which is donated overstock from Target and a now-bankrupt sporting goods shop) where they buy gifts for their parents and siblings, at a cost of 50 cents to $5. There are basketballs, soccer balls, Legos, beer cozies, bottle openers with sports logos, boxes of golf balls, unread thriller novels, perfumes, shave balms, cheap jewelry, baseball caps, throw blankets. Polly Pocket dolls, nail polish, musical coasters, and tiny flower vases, among other stuff a mother or father does not need or want for Christmas, except on the heartbreakingly sweet level of the child’s effort to gift them. (It’s retail’s earliest lesson: ’tis better to give than receive, and ’tis best to shop.)

The children are dropped off at one end of the line by their parents and then escorted through the store by one of Santa’s college interns, out of sight from Mom or Dad. The kids “pay” at the “register” and then proceed to “gift wrapping,” where another helper packs away their merchandise, to keep it a secret when they emerge from the other end, where the parents wait to retrieve them. “We got you a candle,” announces one little girl to her mother, which leads her older sister to break out in tears. “Why did you tell her?! I hate you!” she screams, throwing the bag with the candle to the floor.

The kids all stagger out of the Kids’ Holiday Store with a look of exhaustion, having waited an hour or more to get in to pick over whatever’s left of the merchandise and make their way through checkout and gift wrap. Here you have the entire story of retail Christmas in America, in make-believe microcosm: “Everything sucked,” one boy says to his father. “You won’t like what I got you.”