The very first Christmas was celebrated in Rome on December 25, 336 AD, just 23 years after Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity. The date conveniently coincided with Saturnalia, the most popular pagan holiday, marking the winter solstice. Much like Christmas today, Romans celebrated Saturnalia by closing business and schools, decorating their homes with wreaths and greenery, and gathering together to sing, feast, and exchange gifts.
With the Bible failing to provide a date for Jesus Christ’s birth, the holiday conversion held. By the 16th century, Europeans introduced a character named Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, inspired by Saint Nicholas of Myra, who died in 343, and early Christian bishop revered for his habit of giving gifts. The legend grew with a workshop at the North Pole, a team of reindeer, and the threat of a lump of coal — transforming Christmas eve into the most anticipated night of the year for children around the globe.
With its taste for sparkle and flash, the United States soon brought its own brand of folk art into the mix, a “Saturnalia Night Fever,” if you will. Every year self-taught artisans from across the nation set forth to transform their home into extravagant displays of light, color, and sound that rival a Las Vegas spectacular.
For more than a decade, photographer Danelle Manthey has traversed the United States searching for locals who deck not only the halls but also their roofs, lawns, and backyard to celebrate the birthday of their lord and savior. In the new book American Christmas (Somersault Productions), Manthey presents a rapturous collection of stories and photographs documenting the lives of more than 40 families from 12 states.
The Passion of the Christian Folk Artist
Growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Manthey recalls how every year her family would load up the car and drive around town looking at homes bedazzled with Christmas lights. Years later, when her sister suggested she photograph the homes, Manthey had an epiphany. “I realized then I wasn’t as intrigued by the lights as I was by the people behind them,” she writes in the preface.
Manthey discovered a huge online community who devoted their lives to making an annual extravaganza for family and friends. “For many, it is a true vocation,” she writes. “Some open their homes to the public and have strangers traipsing through for several weeks. Households often hold social events for the community, dressed up in costumes while doling out hot chocolate, popcorn, and candy canes, and many put out donation boxes and host fundraising drives for their favorite charities. One family even moves into a trailer during the holidays because their display completely takes over their home. They were no less hospitable to me.”
Manthey’s environmental portraits capture a community of artists who might never call themselves as much, but whose passion rivals that of anyone trying to make it in the art world today. Though unintentional it may be, these grand works of public art hark back to rituals of Saturnalia, a deep-rooted need to spread sheer when the nights are longer than the days.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Danelle Manthey: American Christmas
Published by Somersault Productions