Depending on your agenda, Christmastime can be a celebration of the baby Jesus, a basically secular exchange of gifts, or an opportunity to travel against the recommendation of health experts and super-spread COVID-19 to your entire family! But it’s also something else, as captured in American Christmas, a new art book by photographer Danelle Manthey that frames the practice of Christmas decoration as a kind of folk art — peace on earth and installation art for all!
Using medium-format film photography, Manthy has spent the better part of a decade traveling the country to collect images of suburbanites and their Christmas assemblages — from collections of blow-mold figurines, to tiny tabletop villages, to eye-popping light displays. Each image is accompanied by an interview conducted by Manthey, capturing her subject’s thoughts on the reason for the season and the importance of their elaborate and time-consuming annual installations. Image titles provide a sneak peek into each person’s take on their decorative practice, which often stem from family legacies spanning generations.
Manthey’s photographs capture Christmas artists of all ages, with displays spanning a range of media, but her subjects are much less diverse. If American Christmas were a representative sample, the conclusion would be that elaborate Christmas kitsch is exclusively the purview of white people. This can only reflect a trend in Manthey’s approach to her subjects, since it’s known that many people throw themselves into their Christmas art, regardless of race or even religion. The images are beautiful, and the connection to Christmas decoration as a folk form is fascinating and well-researched, but one cannot help but wonder if White Christmas might be a more accurate title for the book, rather than its aspiration to capture all of the Americas.