The last word: Elves for hire

In search of Christmas, a reporter teams up with a Texas mom who "decks the halls" of other people's homes

THE GUARD WAVES my car into Stonebriar Country Club Estates at quarter to 7 on a Thursday morning in November. I wind along the neighborhood’s golf course, turn right, turn left, and pull up to Tammie Parnell’s big brick Colonial-esque house. Tammie, a 44-year-old mother of two, is already waiting for me in the long driveway, next to her Coke-can-red GMC Yukon XL. “Are you ready, elf?” she asks in her high-decibel Southern bark. She is wearing something fun—indigo jeans and fashion boots, a chocolate-brown turtleneck, and a suede vest trimmed in a foxy, faux fur. “I love that you’re on time,” she hollers. “I love people who are on time and ready to go! Are you ready to be my elf? We are about to get moving!”

I am ready to be Tammie’s elf. Between now and Christmas, I will be Tammie’s elf a lot.

I am in Frisco, Texas, to write about Christmas. It is 2006, and I have moved there from Washington, D.C., to write about the real Christmas present, but also about everything else: our weird economy, our modern sense of home, our oft-­broken hearts, and our notions of God. The biggies. To get the story, I had turned to a world built on consumption. I wanted starter mansions. I wanted Sunday mornings at megachurches. I wanted the hottie moms in pink feather boas and Ugg boots waiting in line at Starbucks; the hottie dads in camouflage hunting gear examining flat-screen upgrades at the Best Buy. I wanted all that. After so many years of sitting out, doing whatever I could to avoid the meanings, rituals, and drudgeries of the single largest communal event in American communal life, I wanted back in.

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I stuck a pushpin in a map: Frisco. That’s how I wound up in this former farm town turned Dallas megaburb, a place that grew in the last 15 years from 6,000 people to 100,000 people. And that’s how I met Tammie Parnell.

Tammie, who most of the year is one of those mothers devoted to her children’s success in school, maintains a business on the side: She does people’s Christmas decorating for them, because they no longer want to do it themselves. She charges by the hour. It’s not that she needs the money. It’s that Christmas needs her.

IT IS STILL well before Thanksgiving, but Tammie is already booked to do one or two houses per day, six days a week. Her last job can be squeezed in as late as Dec. 11 or 12. (There would be something

seriously wrong with a woman in these suburbs to not, as Tammie puts it, “have her Christmas up” by the 12th.) The jobs in her clients’ homes take anywhere from a few hours—she’ll charge $400 or so to

do the living room only—to 14-hour marathon efforts to fully decorate several rooms in one of those 6,000-square-foot Hummer houses, those red brick or limestone-covered mini-castles with Rapunzel-ready turrets in front. On these big jobs, Tammie recruits mercenary elves (her friends, usually), charging the client $1,200.

Tammie recognizes opportunity in another woman’s meltdown moments. Her clients eventually tell me about how overwhelmed and helpless they felt until Tammie arrived in their lives. The sheer size of their dream houses got the best of them. On a first consultation, Tammie has a new client drag out all her cardboard boxes and Rubbermaid tubs of Christmases past from spare closets, extra bedrooms, garages, and walk-in attics. These spaces are usually filled to bursting with the signs of full-blown affluenza: never-ridden bikes and hardly trod treadmills, abandoned lamps, vases, pots, boxes and boxes marked “keepsakes.”

Tammie will take a long look at the Christmas junk, zeroing in first on the key item: What condition is the family’s artificial tree in? (Tammie’s rule on prelit Christmas trees is that anything less than 100 lights per foot isn’t worth assembling.) Next, she wants to know what the client had been doing on her front door, porch area, and foyer. (A wreath? Of greenery or of decorative twigs? Ribbons?) What sort of Nativity scenes does she own? (This is also Tammie’s way to ascertain, if she does not already know, the degree to which the house is, in her words, “Christ-centered.”) What objects should go in the kitchen? How to decorate the dining room table, sideboard, and chairs? What rooms upstairs will need decorating, e.g., auxiliary trees? How does the client feel about a tree in the master bedroom?

I ask Tammie if anybody has a real tree, or if she ever uses real greenery on the mantel. Almost never, she answers bluntly. None of it is real. She tells me to underline this one fact in my notes: Fake is okay here. “Absolutely,” she says. “Fake is okay here. 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. You will see that fake is okay here.”

Many times a client will just shrug when Tammie asks her questions. They tell her to do it all, signing off on a Tammie shopping spree. “Those are the ones who want to go off to work or wherever and come home and have it all done and looking fantastic,” she says, “and they just want to write you the check.” Which is fine with Tammie. It accommodates her idea that she is working magic.

TAMMIE’S NEW ELF is called upon a lot in the following weeks. I put up $1,000 plastic trees in brand-new McMansions: the 12-foot faux fir in the entry foyer, the 8-footer in the family room, and the 5-footer, with the pink branches and the lavender ornaments, in the baby’s room. Granted, this was a high point of the belle époque we all enjoyed before certain key aspects of the agreed-upon economic fantasies we all lived in came apart. But I would return to Frisco for Christmas 2007 and 2008, and even last year was impressed by the many ways that Frisco seemed impervious to this, the worst economy in decades.

During my search for Christmas present I notice that I come upon one word over and over, emblazoned on various plaques, ornaments, and other bric-a-brac. It was at every holiday crafts bazaar I went to, or somewhere in the holiday décor of every house I visited—soldered in pewter, or sewn into Christmas stockings, or decoupaged onto wood. The word was believe. A team of reindeer pulled it, B-E-L-I-E-V-E, across a front lawn. Believe, people kept telling me.

Tammie included. One of the first jobs she tackles when I’m with her is in a house she values well past the $1 million mark. Tammie adores rich people. She loves horse country, Sunday mimosa brunches at the club, dress codes. She can’t stand it, though, when she thinks rich people are being too selfish, and she’s convinced that the occupant of this house doesn’t care about anyone but herself. Tammie notices little things, such as how bossy the client is—“how ungrateful,” she says. In that million-dollar house, Tammie used all sorts of decorations in several rooms—pricey ornaments, greenery, vases, nutcracker soldiers, ribbon, the works. But there was just no Christmas there. “See, that’s my thing with her,” she says. “I don’t think they’re believers in anything, which I sort of have an issue with. Believe in something. Whether you’re Buddhist or whether you’re Catholic. Just believe in something. Believe, you know, in being charitable. You are blessed.

Tammie is protective of Christmas. As she dashes from house to house, I begin to see her work as an epic conservation effort—the guarding of preciousness. In Tammie’s world it’s important to be careful about choosing the Santa your children encounter. She tries to keep Emily, 10, and Blake, 7, away from multiple substandard Santas in malls to avoid Blake’s increasingly skeptical questions. Someday her children won’t believe in Santa, a prospect that propels Tammie into a wistful state as she considers the irretrievable loss of innocence. She worries that this may be the year for Emily. “If Emily asks me if Santa Claus is real, what do you think I should tell her?” Tammie asks me one afternoon when we’re alone in another house that is getting the garland-on-the-staircase, feathers-in-the-tree, full-on Tammie treatment.

I am a reporter and, it’s important to underline here, not a parent. To me, seven or 8 seems to me a fine age to get just a bit more real, to exercise some skepticism. If a child concludes, on his or her own, that it’s impossible for a man in a flying sleigh to make it all the way around the world in one night, delivering elf-made replicas of all the stuff you see in Target and Best Buy, then that’s a child I would be happy to steer toward a voting booth when age 18 arrives. That’s an American in search of facts. If, however, a modern-day Virginia goes on pretending to believe well into her teens (I encountered more than one such teenager in Frisco), because it makes her parents (and God) feel sweet and happy, then I become worried. That becomes an American willing to spend $100,000 on her “special day” wedding, or who will believe without hard evidence that other countries harbor weapons of mass destruction when they don’t.

I do have good advice to give Tammie; I borrowed it from something a friend wrote on her blog. “Tell Emily the truth,” I say, “but what you have to do is tell her that now that she knows about Santa, it’s her turn to become Santa. Isn’t that the point, That there’s a part of Santa in each of us?”

This almost works; I can see Tammie considering it. She would gain a helper Santa and lose a little girl.

“I don’t think we’re ready for that with Emily,” she finally says with a sigh, and we set about installing garlands on yet another staircase.

THIS MIGHT BE the story of a woman who loves Christmas too much. Tammie will, I discover, work late into the night, every night for a month, to make other people’s houses look perfect, and then, with Santa’s sleigh fast approaching, she will scramble to make her own family’s Christmas appear more serene, only to discover each year that she can’t do it all. Even by the second week of Tammie’s work, she and her husband, Tad, an executive at a brand-name clothing manufacturer, usually have had an argument or two. “Dear Santa,” reads a plaque in Tammie’s laundry room. “I can explain.”

But when Christmas Eve itself arrives, the Parnells are finally home together, sitting in their formal dining room, using the good china. It is briefly—in between Tammie telling Blake to please put his Play­Station Portable away—a soft picture of bliss. After a furious day of last-minute shopping, Tammie has made (ordered?) a dinner of ham, green beans, scalloped potatoes. Outside it’s chilly and drizzly; inside Tammie has achieved a traditional, domestic glow. Though she is still operating under the delusion that she’ll have time to bake homemade pies before it’s officially Christmas, now it is time for her favorite Christmas Eve activity—opening the cards. Tammie likes to set aside and save all the Christmas cards that came in the mail, insisting that they be opened and passed around on the 24th by the whole family. This allows Tammie, Tad, and the kids to “say a prayer for each and every one of our family and friends,” she explains.

Hours later, when the two kids are tucked away, I am called upon to play the elf one more time. While Tammie and Tad make trips to and from the farthest reaches of their closet, I stuff stockings and wrap presents and sign Santa’s name in Sharpie. Tammie’s counting: “Fifteen, 16, 17, 18, 19—Okay, that’s 19 Santa presents for Emily.” “Nineteen for Blake,” I confirm. “Santa is done,” Tammie says. It is half past midnight. “I told you we go overboard,” Tad says to me.

Tammie’s got one more gift —for me. “Open it,” she says, handing me a pretty bag stuffed with tissue. The bag holds a green leather journal notebook, and deeper in, wrapped in tissue, a small rectangular ceramic ornament on a red string. It has four words on it: Believe in the Magic.

“Do you?” Tammie says. “Do you believe in it now?”

“I guess I have to,” I say.

“You better,” she says.

Excerpted from the book Tinsel. ©2009 by Hank Stuever. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

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