As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination -- a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.
The cast of "It's a Wonderful Life 2" reassembled on stage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban megachurch north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.
Then, entering from stage right, came "an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards," writes Stuever, in "Tinsel," his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace.
"Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing,' ending on a long, noisy note: 'newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.'
"Then they freeze.
"Hold it for applause."
The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.
"I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church," said Stuever. "I wrote, 'It's Picasso.' ... I just couldn't believe it."
There is nothing new about a journalist "embedding" himself to experience life on the front lines. Rather than heading to Iraq, Stuever moved to the Bible Belt. He lived in Frisco, Texas, for six months in 2006, then made 12 short follow-up trips during the next two years.
The veteran Washington Post reporter convinced three families to let him see Christmas through their eyes, from the Back Friday craziness to the somber trashing of mountains of ripped wrapping paper. The book's credo is voiced by Tammie Parnell, a 40-something business dynamo who decorates McMansions for women who are too busy to prepare for a Texas-sized Christmas.
"Fake is okay here," she tells Stuever. "Diamond earrings. Christmas trees. If you want me to prove that fake is okay here, let's you and I go to the Stonebriar Country Club pool one day and check everyone out."
The bottom line? Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole. That's fine with Stuever, who is openly gay and calls himself a "Christmas loser" -- while wrestling with the lessons of his Jesuit education and the loss of his Catholic faith.
"A dip into even the most reverent inquiries by Bible scholars," he argues, "easily leads to the conclusion that there was no actual manger scene in Bethlehem, no shepherds dropping by to see the baby, no star in the east, no Magi, no frankincense, no myrrh. ... Many scholars have concluded, some more gently than others, that the Christmas story is intentionally fictive, written by the earliest, first-century evangelists to beef up Jesus' street cred as a believable Jewish Messiah. Like any superhero, Christ needed an origin story rife with the drama, metaphors and the meaningful symbols of the era."
Thus, "Tinsel" seeks the meaning of Christmas in the material world itself, in the blitz of shopping, in houses draped in high-voltage lights, in the complex joys and tensions of family life. Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient -- and more significant today -- than the rites of praying and believing.
For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that's fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the "total moments" of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.
"It's so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, 'Oh, those poor, stupid people,' " he said. "But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. ...
"It's a religious experience for them, even though it couldn't be more secular. They're out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas."