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Santa Claus plays pool at a dive bar; giant muppets and nutcrackers fill a neon-lit lawn; a glowing sign reads “Happy Birt Jesus:” These are a few examples of suburban America’s take on the 2,000-year-old religious tradition of Christmas, as captured by photographer Jesse Rieser in his series Happy Birthday Jesus.
“There’s a lot of complex irony involved in how Americans celebrate Christmas that no one seems to really care about,” Rieser tells Hyperallergic. Rieser began this series back in 2009, after seeing a 70-foot-tall inflatable Santa Claus swaying in the wind while driving to Phoenix, Arizona for the holidays. For the following four Christmases, he visited American homes with the most over-the-top decorations he could find, with lawns and living rooms transformed into tinsel-trimmed wonderlands.
While Rieser’s photographs capture the “complex irony” he mentions, and most viewers of his photos are quick to call these Christmas displays “tacky,” he says he’s not making fun of his subjects. “It’s easy to say I’m making some sort of social commentary, but the project is more observational,” Rieser says. “The motivation to create these displays comes from a sincere, creative, almost childlike place for these people. There’s also a bit of peacock feather showmanship. There’s something rooted in innocence about that, even if it appears misguided or over-the-top.” Rieser found many of the people with the most elaborate Christmas displays didn’t have children of their own, so decorating was rooted in nostalgia. “I’m not exploiting them — it’s more celebrating the celebration.” he says.
It might be easy to look in as an outsider and judge these displays as tacky, but even more understated approaches to Christmas in the United States tend to have similar elements of irony. Anyone who buys a ton of Christmas gifts is participating in a consumerist culture’s commercializing of a holiday that’s been almost completely removed from its origins. “I don’t know if all this is what Jesus intended,” Rieser says.