By Abbey Adkison
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN — What has two cowbells, 12 jingle bells, two miniature Barbie dolls, lights up and sings “Jesus Loves Me”? That would be the homecoming mum that Stephanie Tamburello made for her son’s date this year.
The oversized corsage is a Texas homecoming phenomenon that took off in the 1960s and has sparkled and ribboned its way into neighboring Oklahoma and Louisiana. Students like Nathan Tamburello, an 18-year-old senior at Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, give their dates (in his case, my sister Claire) a silk chrysanthemum to wear to the homecoming football game. The flowers are bedecked with ribbons in school colors, noisemakers and plastic charms that reflect the student’s interests — band, cheerleading, debate club. The female date wears the mum to class the Friday before (boys wear a smaller mum called a garter). The mums are a part of high school culture from El Paso to Houston.
Wanda Hickman, the co-owner of The Mum Shop in Plano, has been making mums and selling supplies since 1985. She sells more than 4,000 mums a year and is surprised that the recession hasn’t hurt business.
“We haven’t seen them drop a bit in this economy,” said Hickman, 65. When she was in high school, mums were actual chrysanthemum flowers and cost $3. Now, she says, parents will pay anywhere from about $30 to hundreds of dollars for a mum. “There’s only big or bigger,” she added. “They keep them a while, and then they go in the garbage. I don’t know why people love them so much. It seems like a waste to me.”
For Stephanie Alanis in Austin, bigger is also better for her clients. Her full-time job is managing an auto shop, but during homecoming season, she supplements her income by making mums — $9,000 in 2010, she hopes $10,000 this year. “Sometimes I will fall asleep at 6:45 and wake up at 8 to go to work,” said Alanis, 25. “I’ll work a 10-hour day then come back to make mums. I live off of energy drinks until the beginning of November. And then I take a vacation.”
Hickman’s most expensive mum is about $300, while last year Alanis made a $350 mum for a girl in Dallas. “She wanted one that went over her shoulder, too, so it was basically two mums — one in the front and one in the back. Just the supplies alone for that one cost $100.”
The mum Stephanie Tamburello made for Claire, Nathan’s date, weighs more than 3 pounds and hangs around her neck instead of the being pinned to the shoulder (but I’ve also worn my fair share of over-the-top mums).
Nathan said SUV-sized mums are common at his school. “Last year one of my friends had an air horn attached to the back of her mum,” he said.
It’s things like air horns that have caused some schools to push back. “Our students don’t wear mums to school, just the game,” said Rikki Dautel, a teacher at Reagan High School in Austin. Dautel, 24, said the school doesn’t want students wearing accessories that could be linked to gang colors. On a less serious scale, the mums can be distracting. For instance, Nathan’s date had a test on the Friday of Clear Brook’s homecoming.
“Oh, yeah, her mum is definitely going to get in the way of her test,” he said. “It’s impossible for her to sit in a desk.”
Stephanie Tamburello estimates she spent more than $200 for her mum. “The moms get into it way more than the kids,” she said. “I’m a little bit sad that this is my last one to make.” She liked the fact that Nathan helped her a more this year, telling her what to change and add.
Spending so much time on a fake flower wasn’t entirely for selfless reasons. “There is totally competition to give your date the best mum,” Nathan said. “First, I think the moms care the most. I think they want to make their mum look the best. And second, I think it’s a tie between the girl and the guy, with who cares the most. The girl wants it to look good, but the guy wants to give her a really nice one.”
Is hers going to attract the most attention? After all, her mum requires three AA batteries. “Yeah, her mum is pretty awesome,” Nathan decided. “I don’t think anybody else will have lights.”