Jesse Rieser’s photographic project Christmas in America: Happy Birthday Jesus is at first glance humorous and lighthearted. The garish colors and cartoonish settings allude to theme parks and the classic feature film A Christmas Story and perhaps to one’s own holiday memories. With each additional image in the eight-year and ongoing project, the tone changes to exhaustive and subversive. The figure of Santa appears as a saint or idol and Christmas as the time in which he is worshipped. In the image Nativity Study No 1: Praying Santa + Baby Jesus, he takes the place of the Virgin Mary, looking over baby Jesus. In Santa Sea, a compact gathering of people don his iconic red and white cap as if their garb denotes their faith, and in so many ways it does. Christmas is one of the few holidays in a secular and capitalist America where public ritual and expression of idolatry is socially acceptable. The question is, if Christmas sets the stage for American Idolatry, what exactly is everyone worshipping?
Many of the photographs were captured in the American Southwest desert, lending them an alternative aesthetic to stereotypical Christmas imagery. Two images in particular offer parallel perspectives of the desert. In The Star of Bethlehem, the soft light and muted browns and blues of the rocky hillside behind the twinkle star suggest the homeland of Jesus, and in Electric Blue, the desert plays the role of the American West and the myth of Manifest Destiny—the West as blank space to be molded by its new settlers. Bright lights create a flowing blue river on the banks of which are illuminated geese, palm trees, a cactus, a pine tree, and even miniature carolers. This is a world of the maker’s creation—a simulacrum of holiday ritual and American ideals.
In Rieser’s world marketing is gospel, buying is ritual, and Santa Claus is God.
The sheer amount of stuff in Rieser’s photographs is astounding. There are piles and heaps of red and green, tangles of wires, uncountable figurines, tinsel, sparkle, candy canes, plastic icicles, Santa hats and beards, plastic trees, real trees, inflatables, and the list goes on. To the unassuming eye this ‘stuff’ seems excessive, but to the believer, it is sacred. The long-running criticism that Christmas has been transformed from a spiritual holiday into a marketing ploy is still valid, but in Rieser’s world marketing is gospel, buying is ritual, and Santa Claus is God. Just as Christians colonized the Pagans, replacing their idols with Jesus and the Virgin Mary, Santa brings the secular religion of consumerism to America and beyond.
Jesse Rieser is a working photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He began work on Christmas in America: Happy Birthday Jesus in 2009 and continues to photograph throughout the United States. He has photographed the project in eighteen states. To see more of his work please visit jesserieser.com.