At Large  December 8, 2023  Chandra Noyes

Christmas Lights: Photographing a Very American Tradition

Created: Fri, 12/08/2023 - 10:53
Author: chandra

As we approach the end of the year, in what has felt like a particularly dark time, the simple joys of the holiday season are all the more appealing. Finding beauty and art in unexpected places can still enrich our lives, in spite of it all. Danelle Manthey’s book, American Christmas, 2020, in which the photographer spent a decade, documenting elaborate Christmas displays across the US, is worth revisiting

Through intimate photographs and the artist's own words, Manthey’s photographs and accompanying essays recontextualize these displays as more than just Christmas kitsch, but as visionary works of art created by talented folk artists. Featuring the stories of more than forty artists across twelve states, American Christmas shows their commonalities and differences, and how they are united by hard work and an inspired vision.

People who devote themselves to impressive Christmas displays are often driven by the same motivations typically attributed to more traditional folk artists. Be it carrying on a family tradition, expressing religious reverence, or creating their own version of a paradise on earth, these artists have deep and meaningful motivations for creating their works, and through her photographs, Manthey seeks to give them the recognition they deserve. Of her motivations she explains, “In my photography practice, I aim to capture my subjects in shrines of self-expression. Through this project, I reveal what makes these displays so special—the creators’ artistic vision, homespun passion and ability to share happiness.” Experiencing these massive art installations, even through Manthey’s medium-format photographs, conveys a sense of awe, and may inspire you to join the ranks of these previously-unsung great artists.

1 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
a couple in matching train t-shirts stand in front of their home decorated with christmas lights
Choo Choo!

Terry and Shannon Miller, Westminister, CO

"For those of us that decorate, we never know who we will touch and how we will make a difference in someone's life. We try to remember this when we get frustrated."

2 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
A woman sits in a room full of christmas decorations
A Family Tradition

Ed Rombeiro, Novato, CA

Ed Rombeiro honors his mother, seen here, every year with his impressive Christmas display. "My favorite childhood memory is decorating with my mom in Sao Miguel, Azores, building a nativity scene with her made of lava rock since the island is volcanic."

3 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
a man dresses as santa claus stands over a small model snowy village
This is for you Mom

Ed Rombeiro, Novato, CA

Now, Rombeiro grows his beard out to play Santa Claus, spends months decorating with the help of his daughter, and welcomes nearly 40,000 visitors into his home.

4 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
"IT"S ALL ABOUT JESUS" written in christmas lights
It's All About Jesus!

Daniel Baughman, Prosper, TX

"I decorate for the joy of the season, to point people toward Christ, as a family tradition and spending time with my kids, and for the community's enjoyment. My favorite thing is seeing my kids' faces light up when we start the show Thanksgiving night, kicking off the Christmas season."

5 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
a woman in a christmas sweater sits in front of her large home decorated in christmas lights
It's More than the Lights

Karen Vaught, Broomfield, CO

"I love looking out of my front door, seeing hundreds of people smiling, kids laughing, sounds of (look here), (oh, look at that), (there's Santa), (wow), and so on. ... It's more than the lights and displays. It's a place where people can come, enjoy the sights and sounds of Christmas at no cost to them, and take home with them pretty memories."

6 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
a young man crouches in front of a house with a yard full of inflatable and light-up christmas decorations
To Scale

Garrett Mauser, Babylon, NY

"It has been a pleasure to see everyone from all over come and enjoy the display. I am very happy that it has brought so much happiness to people. It's a lot to do, but it's worth it in the end!"

7 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
A home with bright christmas lights in the rain

Dan and Mary Gromer, Antelope, CA

Though rain may typically be a damper, it only adds more shimmer and shine to this Christmas display.

8 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
a woman in a pink bikini and sunglasses sits in a lawn chair in front of her home at night
A Very Good Sport

Tracy Power, Cape Coral, FL

The holidays in Florida offer unique opportunities not found in other parts of the country. Manthey took advantage of the warm weather and asked this Christmas enthusiast to celebrate in tropical-inspired style.

9 of 9
Courtesy of Danelle Manthey
cover of american christmas book showing a santa claus sitting with his feet in a pool
About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.

Art and Object Marketplace - A Curated Art Marketplace