(Jesse Rieser)

A decade’s worth of photos capture Christmas in America, from the joyful to the bleak

An inflatable Santa Claus loomed four stories over a Christmas tree lot, waving in the breeze and catching Jesse Rieser’s attention as he drove through Phoenix in 2009.

The decoration was absurd, Rieser said later, but joyous in its own way.

Rieser, a photographer, was visiting his parents after they moved from his childhood home in Missouri. Experiencing Christmas in a warm environment for the first time gave him a different lens on the holiday, he noticed.

Inspired, he set out the next year to document Christmas’s contradictions — its sincerity and creativity on one hand, and its awkwardness and bleakness on the other. Rieser traveled to 18 states over the next decade, from Oregon to Florida, and ended in New York City to capture images that were visually distinct from those of less populated areas.

After researching each region, Rieser knocked on the doors of houses with decorations he wanted to photograph. Often, he said, people were eager to discuss their flamboyant displays. Many of them told him that they staged the elaborate scenes to tap into nostalgia for their childhoods, while some said they were trying to bring joy to other families — a particularly poignant goal during the isolating coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of these homes become the sort of de facto community centers for the neighborhood,” Rieser said. “The kids want to come, so the parents come. It sort of brings people together in this kind of adorable side effect of this mass consumption.”

The title of the project, “Christmas in America: Happy Birthday, Jesus,” originated from one of Rieser’s favorite photos. Neon red lights spell “Happy birt, Jesus” over the roof of a white garage, with the missing four letters resting atop the shingles.

Rieser took that shot in the first year of his project, when his partner pushed him to return to the location on an unseasonably cold and windy night in the desert. At 2 a.m. one day between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he said, he stood on a ladder in the home’s front yard and captured that image.

Rieser’s view of the colorful Christmas displays evolved over the course of the project. At first, he said, he thought the decorations symbolized excess consumption. He later decided that people’s motivations seemed more innocent and endearing.

One pair of sisters, he said, had an ornately decorated space in their home that might evoke feelings of escapism. But when they left that room, they often walked into a much more mundane scene: eating frozen TV dinners while watching the television show “Cops.”

Quirky decorations, Rieser said, may be a way for those sisters and others to find and share joy.

“There’s joy in the void of the unexpected,” he said. “It’s sort of like they’re controlling the narrative for those five weeks of the year when … other times, people feel like they may not have the autonomy or control over their life.”

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof