Outdoor decorations are to Christmas what fireworks are to the Fourth of July. These exuberant displays of brilliant color and darkness-banishing light derive from, and are inspired by, their respective holidays. But after that they take on a life of their own. The enthusiastic, yet temporary, creations of private and public art are a celebration in themselves. A feast for the eyes, you can delight in Christmas decorations whether or not you observe the Yule, just as you can delight in fireworks whether or not you are a flag-waving patriot.
I've always loved Christmas decorations on a personal level, but they also intrigue me as an artist and a photographer of urban and suburban landscapes. Christmas seems to me a holiday unusually grounded in weather. Although it is celebrated all over the world, without regard to geography or meteorology, it is the quintessentially seasonal happening. All the secular symbolism, images, and archetypes are inextricably linked to a certain kind of climate typical of New England and northern Europe (hardly a surprise, there). Songs like "Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and "White Christmas"; fir tree branches dappled with snow; Santa Claus dressed for the North Pole; snowflake, tinsel, and icicle decorations. These are all symbolic of the icy winter that comes between the fall harvest and the verdant spring.
Where I live, not so much. I made most of the photographs in my monograph "Christmas in California" within ten miles of my Daly City home, and all are located on the San Francisco Peninsula. This is one of those blessed spots that have a true Mediterranean climate. Locals consider it "cold" where I live; the ocean breezes and fog produce many days that are down in the high 50s Fahrenheit, and the nights may even get into the 40s. This is not exactly the winter that comes to mind when thinking of Christmas.
Oh, we do get snow. In the 40+ years I've lived here, since moving from New York, we've had measurable snow on the ground at least three times. White stuff that hung around long enough to have a snowball fight and make a very modest snowman. Not exactly a frequent occurrence, and it has never happened for Christmas.
This does not dissuade the locals. If anything the decorations here are even more imaginative and exuberant. Consciously or not, the folk artists who turn their houses into Christmas art (and they most certainly are art) seem intent to make up for the deficiencies in what Mother Nature has provided. Their real estate becomes a raw canvas onto which they paint dreams and desires for a joyous festival. For a few weeks these private feelings are on public display where the passing audience, including I, can delight in them. Half installation and half performance art, they spring up out of the mundane suburban landscape in December and merge back into it in January in a near-magical way: I hardly ever see them being put up or taken down—suddenly they are there and just as suddenly they are gone.
Taken as a whole these decorations have no obvious shared aesthetic despite their common inspiration. Many times I see extraordinary, isolated displays blazing away in an otherwise dark neighborhood. It's equally likely for me to find clusters of amazing constructions as neighborhoods engage in sociable, cooperative competition like some hyperchromatic, Prismacolor poetry jam. Sometimes there seem to be themes, where I can walk down a block and sense an underlying consistency or at least a subconsciously-shared artistic perspective. Others are entirely individualistic with one house's display having no connection with the one next to it other than the holiday, much like the disparate pavilions of different countries at a World's Fair. Some creations are elegant, subtle, and understated; others can only be described as (and I mean no disrespect by this) "over the top."
What these presentations do share is heart and the purpose of their creators to gift the world with a public celebration.
Christmas decorations are a very pure kind of art. They have to stand on their own, without reference to or knowledge about their artists. People reveal deep and very personal sentiments through these works, but the work isn't about them. The paradox of Christmas displays is that they are anonymous at the same time they intimately expose their makers' passions (up to a point). The dwellers in these artworks have established clear and consensual boundaries; one does not typically find a neat biography nor list of previous and upcoming exhibits posted next to the plastic reindeer.
That's why you won't find stories along with my pictures about the artists who created these lovely displays. It's understandable to be curious; I also wonder who's behind some of these displays. But artwork always has its mysteries and puzzles, and what we know of these artists should properly come from their art, not from invading their privacy.
Here is what these decorations are all about, for me: they are about the enjoyment, they are about the party, they are about having fun and a good time. I present my portfolio in the same spirit as the anonymous artists presented their creations to the world. May it bring you joy in any season of the year, brightening your days and nights.
Happy holidays to you, for whichever ones you love to celebrate.
This essay was originally written to accompany Ctein's monograph "Christmas in California."