Even though it feels like June was literally yesterday, it’s that time of year again. Many Americans are gearing up for a holiday season that is going to range from slightly untraditional to downright devastating. During this time, some of us might be looking for some comfort — some old-fashioned, otherworldly cheer. Thankfully, Danelle Manthey’s new book, American Christmas, has this in droves.
Manthey, a New York–based photographer, picked up her first camera at age 16, but it wasn’t until years later that her interest in photographing fantastical Christmas displays turned into an obsession that would take her around the country — to 12 states — and last over a decade. We spoke to her about her new book and what she thinks Christmas displays will look like this year.
For more photo news to get you through the holidays, sign up for our newsletter below.
Did you grow up in a "Christmas" family?
My family celebrated Christmas and had the same fake Christmas tree every year. We didn’t go all out with decorations or decorate the outside of our house, but we loved to drive around my hometown, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, looking at Christmas lights. It was our annual tradition. Every year, the local paper has a map of the local light displays. The streets have clever names, like Candy Cane Lane, Church Lane, and Penguin Lane, and all of the houses on a street are decorated according to the theme.
How did you find the first folks that you photographed?
The first year I worked on the project, I wrote a note introducing myself and asking to take pictures of people with their light displays. My dad and niece went around to houses in Sioux Falls that they thought were the best and left the note in people’s doors and mailboxes. Some of those people contacted me, and I scheduled appointments to take their photos.
What surprised you about people's personal inspiration for these decorations?
So many folks have very deeply heartfelt reasons for decorating. For example, memories of childhood are often transformed into big public displays. Many people have charities that they donate to in conjunction with their Christmas lights, and that is really a great way to show the giving aspect of the season instead of the commercialization of Christmas.
You call these displays a unique form of American folk art. Could you elaborate on that?
First, let's look at the definition of folk art: artistic works, as paintings, sculpture, basketry, and utensils, produced typically in cultural isolation by untrained, often anonymous artists or by artisans of varying degrees of skill and marked by such attributes as highly decorative design, bright, bold colors, flattened perspective, strong forms in simple arrangements, and immediacy of meaning.
If we look at this definition alone, I think it clearly shows that decorating would be in this vein. The people that decorate in most situations are untrained as artists and wouldn’t consider themselves to be artists at all. One could certainly call Christmas decorations “highly decorated design with bright, bold colors.” And then we get immediacy of meaning or without and distortions of meaning. I think we can clearly say that there are not any distortions of meaning within these decorations — they are what they are: a celebration of the season. There is no ulterior motivation than to spread joy to the community.
When you look at those factors, I think it’s quite clear that this — along with this level of holiday decoration being a VERY American phenomenon — is a form of folk art.
Are there any decorators who really stand out?
I’m pretty attached to every house and person I photographed, but here are some highlights:
Petey from Hammond, Indiana. Hammond is the town that is depicted in the movie A Christmas Story, and they have a leg lamp in the window to pay homage to it.
Gil Gerard from Louisiana hand-built a trolley car replica like the one that runs down St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans and a paddle boat that sails the Mississippi River.
Deacon Dave in Livermore, California, has amazing decorations both inside and out of his “House of the Dove.” The exterior of his home has a canopy of lights that is incredible to walk underneath. He also has a private chapel on the back of his property.
And lastly, the book starts with Jim Mortensen from Windsor, California, who transforms the outside of his house into a gingerbread house by wrapping it in brown plastic with candy cane trim and a large cuckoo clock over the garage.
Do you see the displays changing this year, with the pandemic?
Some people will not be doing their displays because of the pandemic. But I think there may be more Christmas displays this year because people are longing for this coziness, this togetherness — it seems like this year people will be reaching out to see these kinds of displays more.
What was, if anything, something truly interesting about the holiday that you learned over the process of making the book?
To me, Christmas has never been my favorite holiday. Always a bit too commercial and centered around gifts. This project was a way for me to take back the holiday and spend it with people who transformed it into a community event that’s about giving.