Alibi V.25 No.51 • Dec 22-28, 2016 

Culture Shock

A Map of Joy

Photographer Jesse Rieser explores the many ways Americans celebrate Christmas

Santa Claus playing pool
Jesse Rieser
By the time he sat down to call me on Monday morning, Jesse Rieser had spent the weekend photographing SeaWorld employees playing with dolphins while dressed as elves and and later, a 400-person Christmas play at a Texas mega-church. As he detailed his adventures photographing the variety of ways in which Americans celebrate Christmas, I couldn't help but think that the raw material of the holiday is so strange. Whether celebrated in a secular or a devoutly Christian context, Christmas—a holiday that tends to stand head and shoulders above all others, dominating the cultural landscape—is singular. Rieser, a photographer based primarily out of LA, has been exploring the many ways in which people articulate their joy through an ongoing photographic series called Christmas in America: Happy Birthday, Jesus.

“I'm observing and creating this anthology of what makes Americans tick,” Rieser detailed. Throughout the country, “this content and these themes are there, I'm just reporting on them in a sense. Yes, it's humorous, but not at anyone's expense.”

The series has taken him all over the United States, and will soon bring him to Albuquerque. He described when the idea for the inquiry first struck him: Looming over a Christmas tree lot, a four-story Santa Claus “just sat there and kind of blew in the wind like it was waving at us,” Rieser detailed. “It was kind of cool, but also kind of … menacing.” That sort of complexity, and the oft-occurring dualities of how we celebrate, are a central feature of the body of work. “There's a surreality to a lot of it,” he explained. “[There's] the Christian heritage, and then the American cultural one that is tied into commercialism and advertising.” As such, honest celebration is often entwined with branding, good intentions laced with greed. “It's this thing that's rooted in family, tradition and fond memories … [but] it's amazing how many components there are. … The things we saw as kids in the Macy's Day Parade or at Rockefeller Center, [they're] driven by money … It wouldn't be the same without the influx of an enormous amount of cash.” Acknowledging this galvanic aspect of the holiday season, however, doesn't undermine the other values that surface in the imagery, like nostalgia, the act of celebration and the very earnest examination of how we choose to live and express ourselves. Rieser is careful to document his queries without any judgment skewing the frame.

“I'm observing and creating this anthology of what makes Americans tick,” Rieser detailed. Throughout the country, “this content and these themes are there, I'm just reporting on them in a sense. Yes, it's humorous, but not at anyone's expense.” Tempering it all, as it does for many of us so-called grown-ups, is a cast of nostalgia, the dream-like quality of childhood remembered under the glow of a Christmas tree and a dollar store strand of lights, torturous anticipation and virtuous, sincere, honest-to-god belief. “There is in my work a wrestling with these notions of the past, present and future, or the child and the adult … It's [similar to] this duality of the foreign and the familiar” and that one feeling overlaying another, seemingly at odds with itself, has the makings of a rich and complex investigation for Rieser's photographic eye.

“It wasn't until my family had to relocate out West [to Arizona that] for the first time … I looked at the holiday and was detached from the childhood nostalgia and traditions,” Rieser said of a pivotal time as a young adult when he began to think more critically about the holiday season. “I don't know if it was the weather or the quirkiness of the suburbia [of Phoenix], but that city inspired the project in ways that wouldn't have happened in a more traditional setting.” And it made Rieser realize the multiplicity of ways in which people mark this point of the year, and to continue exploring the many variations on the holiday in his work. “As the project grows thematically and geographically, it becomes [apparent that] there's no one right way to celebrate. … [I'm] using Christmas as a vehicle to see how Americans are different and have different traditions and cultures.” But there is one unifying element that he observes in every person who audaciously inflates a giant Santa Claus in their yard, or mounts a string of lights on every possible inch of their home exterior on the day after Thanksgiving—and that is their sincerity. “You might think it's misguided or strange, but it comes from a good place,” he concluded, “The motives are true, sometimes unrefined, but their hearts are always in the right place.”

“I wish everyone had the opportunity to do this,” Rieser suggested, because they might find that they are surprised by the baseline level of humanity among their neighbors. “Maybe it's the Christmas spirit, or maybe it's just refreshing to be on the road and meet new people [and find that] people are nice … I believe that people are good.” There are rich and complex hierarchies, histories and forces both dark and light at work as we approach Jesus' birthday. Yet, it is indeed refreshing to hear that Rieser's studied conclusion is something so simple and sweet—that all that goodwill toward your fellow humans that people talk about this time of year is actually at work out there in the world. Rieser's not suggesting that you should cease to question the powers that shape the holiday into the manic force that it is, but his photographs, and the wisdom that has sprung from them, might just hearten your voice the next time you call out “Merry Christmas!” this year.

Happy Birt Jesus
Jesse Rieser