A Heartwarming Look At How Americans Celebrate Christmas

Tacky ornaments included.

You can tell a lot about people by their Christmas decorations. Do they festoon their homes with yards of lights and tacky reindeer? Do they painstakingly recreate a full-scale crèche? Or are they grinches who decide to shun adornment? After Phoenix-based photographer Jesse Rieser caught a glimpse of a 40-foot-tall inflatable Santa in his rear-view mirror, he decided to document the creative—and often garish—displays that commemorate Christmas In America.


“Christmas is complex and at times, uncomfortable,” Rieser says in his artist statement. “It’s awkward and sometimes bleak. But it is also sincere and celebratory, colorful and creative.” He started the project in 2010 and has traveled around Arizona, Utah, and Las Vegas to shoot the series.

Rieser is drawn to “unnoticed and overlooked” and the “fantastic in the mundane.” He grew up in a secular family where Christmas was was more about family and nostalgia than religious traditions. In the series, he aims to show the myriad way people choose to celebrate. The photographs depict regular families at home, strip mall displays, costumed races, and a couple people playing pool.

One of Rieser’s favorites is an elderly couple standing in front of their home. “Their matching red sweatshirts, their body language reads as sincere and honest as they wave to a neighbor/admirer,” he says. “Their hand-holding is sweet, gentle and honest.They appear to be happy, kind, and in love—this is the way I would like to think most children envision Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”

Rieser shot much of the series in suburbia. While many of the vignettes and decorations are an acquired taste, they serve a heartwarming role in their respective neighborhoods.

The advent of the attached garage in American suburbs created a very lonely environment,” Rieser says. “A homeowner gets off work, drives home, parks their car and walks inside yielding very little interaction with neighbors as you hardly see people in the front of their homes and in the streets. These homes create a destination within the neighborhood—kids want to see the lights, hear the music, have a cup of hot chocolate, etc. And where the children go, so do the parents, unifying neighbors often over a beer as the children play under the lights sounds of the complex displays.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.