Dec. 9, 2020, 9 a.m.
For many, Christmas begins the moment the Christmas tree is lit for the first time. Others kick off the holiday season by driving through grand light shows in city parks, pressing their noses to the cool glass of their car windows. Whatever your family traditions may be, holiday lights remain a staple of American Christmas, brightening the long winter nights in a cheery display of Christmas spirit.
Photographer Danelle Manthey’s childhood memories of driving around the block after dark to marvel at the twinkling light shows adorning neighbors’ lawns inspired her to embark on a cross-country journey to document home light displays and the people behind them. Starting in 2003, and then every Christmas season from 2005 through 2011, Manthey captured light displays across 12 states—from New York to California—and their crafty creators. Her new book, American Christmas, profiles these decorators and their distinct type of American folk art.
Manthey, who has been photographing since the age of 16 and studied photography at Chicago’s Columbia College, embarked on the project in her hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she left letters at people’s doorsteps introducing herself and asking if she could photograph them. Later on, she simply drove around and knocked on doors. Occasionally one holiday light enthusiast would tell her about another. Other times she would dig through local newspapers or forums of the passionate online Christmas lights community for leads. Oftentimes, the strangers whom she asked to photograph would even invite her into their homes after the shoot to chat over warm drinks and family photo albums.
“This [project] goes to what I think as a country, our strengths are: that no matter what our differences are, we can always find common ground and come together and be accepting of strangers,” Manthey says. “They’re just inviting me into their homes, in their lives for that evening. Not to be corny, but when I think of America, that spirit of generosity and kindness is what I think of.”
William Bird, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a lay expert on American holiday display, says General Electric and other early electricity companies capitalized on the lights’ success in creating a “community, feel-good spirit” in homes and saw the potential for a market in outdoor lighting. Outdoor Christmas light displays started becoming mainstream in the 1920s, and during the Great Depression, their bright appearance was used to create a veneer of prosperity on city streets where businesses struggled to haul themselves out of financial disrepair.
As for why the tradition has persisted, Bird speculates that our sentimentality has kept lights displays in the Christmas cultural canon, something that the impacted economy may enhance. “We’ve come to expect a certain level of a spectacle, and that spectacle has been produced by an underlying commercial culture—when it goes through some seismic shifts, it leaves you wanting,” Bird says. “It’s a very powerful nostalgia factor. So I think in the end it comes down to nostalgia for what we remember in happy times.”
Many of the holiday light fanatics featured have been designing lights shows for years, even decades. This year, some have put their decoration on hold due to the pandemic, while others feel the need more than ever to provide a source of joy for passersby.
The Kielawa Family, Huntington Station, New York
Patricia and Robert Kielawa decorated their yard for Christmas for the 31st year just before Thanksgiving, a process that takes about 120 hours. The display consists of 200 ornaments, 37,000 lights and requires seven circuit breakers. Each year, the couple picks out something new to add to the display, and it’s a tradition for kids to search for it. This year, the new additions include a pink octopus and a Christmas unicorn. After taking down the lights, Robert is soon thinking about how he can change the design for the next year. Patricia says her husband is so dedicated to decorating because of kids’ reactions of awe and delight. For her, the lights bring joy as well: Patricia, who has been working at home since March, says the lights lift her spirits during these uncertain times.
Doug and Karen Heron, Champlin’s Marina, Block Island, Rhode Island
Doug and Karen are from Jericho, New York, but the couple used to sail to Block Island at the end of every summer. In a harbor lined with glammed-out ships, the Herons’ boat stood out to Manthey because of its eye-catching decorations, which included a real Christmas tree, a train set and a snow machine. The week leading up to Labor Day weekend, the couple and their family would decorate the boat, and they’d dock it at Champlin’s Marina for their own Christmas-and-New-Year’s-Eve-in-September celebrations. Since 2009, their ninth year of decoration, the couple has gotten too busy to decorate, but they had made plans to revive the tradition this year until Covid-19 struck. They hope that next year they can pull it off, this time with the help of their now 9- and 5-year-old grandchildren.
“It looks so calm in the photo,” Manthey says. “But it was like hundreds of people drinking and screaming—total chaos. But it was super fun.” She recalls that the challenge was getting passersby who were walking on the pier to hold still long enough for her to take a photo of the Herons without the dock shaking, and to be heard over all the noise.
Roddis Finley, New Orleans, Louisiana
Roddis Finley has been decorating his townhouse for at least 20 years. Each year, he tweaks his arrangement, but this time, Finley is going all-out: he already bought special new alternating lights that change colors. He told Manthey that he gets cards and letters all the time from people who enjoy his decorations. One read, ‘Thank you so much for the smile you put on my face every time I pass your house. People like you will help our city survive,’” Finley recounted. “I decorate because it makes people happy, and I’m never gonna stop.” He not only decorates for Christmas, but also for Mardi Gras. “He is a total institution on [the street he lives on],” Manthey says. “So he decorates for all the holidays, and he is such a cool, amazing character.”
Gil Gerard, Kenney, Louisiana
Gil Gerard’s decorations have remained largely the same over the past two decades, though he has added a cow with lights and a light-up ice cream cone over the years. His centerpieces are a steamboat, like the kind that travels down the Mississippi River, and a trolley car, which is based on one in St. Charles Parish, about 30 minutes west of New Orleans. Both were handmade by Gerard, who wanted decorations no one else had and chose to create Louisiana icons. Using wood, nails, a hammer and a saw, he made each over the course of six to eight weeks. In the photograph, the blue lights strewn in the grass before him represent blue water.
“I just love the portrait that I took of him,” Manthey says. “One of my goals is to not just show all of the lights and all the craziness, it really is about trying to show the person with their creation, and I feel like that photo is such a great example and a big success of something like that.”
Edmundo Rombeiro, Novato, California
Ed Rombeiro’s house is a local attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each holiday season. The incredible display normally doesn’t stop with the yard, which is blanketed in light-up Christmas figurines: the entire inside of his one-floor flat will be decorated as well. The indoor decorations typically include an elaborate Christmas village and an angel-filled nativity scene. This year, however, Rombeiro’s daughter, Kathy, decided that it was too risky to open up the inside of the home due to the pandemic. In past Christmas seasons, the Rombeiros would move out to the trailer in their backyard that they keep all their decorations in during the year. Since Ed suffered a stroke three years ago, Kathy has taken the reins on the decoration process. She says this is the one year she could take a break from decorating and spend more time at her own home, but she wants to do what she can to spread some cheer. “Of all years, people are hungry for some type of normal, some type of joy,” she says. Their 29th lighting ceremony took place on December 6.
Dave Rezendes, Livermore, California
Casa del Pomba, or House of the Dove, is a sight to behold during the holiday season. Deacon Dave Rezendes and a legion of local volunteers transform the two-story residence located on a half-acre property into a lights extravaganza that is one of the nation’s biggest neighborhood light displays. In 2019, it touted more than 640,000 lights. Rezendes told SFGate’s Douglas Zimmerman that he will only disclose the electricity bill to guests who are game to swap bills. Unfortunately, the display will not take place this year, a decision Rezendes made for the safety of his volunteers, many of whom are at risk for the virus due to their advanced age. Rezendes says he still plans to display a large dove sign, a symbol of hope and the Holy Spirit during what would have been his 39th year of light decoration.
When Manthey visited Casa del Pomba, she got the full tour of the residence. Typically, only the front yard is open to the public. The property, which features at least one dove in each room and 43 Christmas trees during the holiday season, includes a private chapel as well as a homemade waterfall and six outdoor aviaries with more than 60 birds. A main outdoor attraction is the “Proposal Bridge,” where 71 successful proposals (and one unsuccessful proposal) have been held.
Jack Yoast, Ambler, Pennsylvania
Since 2008, Jack Yoast has held a holiday lights show and fundraiser called “Light up a Life” with his brother, Mike, who co-founded their telecommunications business. Visitors’ donations go to local charities. “I love the effect the decorations have on people young and old alike,” Yoast told Manthey. “One of my favorite moments is the older folks getting dropped off from the nursing home with their wheelchairs and walkers, moseying about the property. I also love the children’s expressions and comments when viewing their favorite display.” The lights show is known for its wireframe Christmas lights, which line the Yoasts’ almost 1.5-acre space. The Yoasts chose wireframe lights, a type of decoration that features lights that line wires shaped in the outline of certain objects, because of their ability to mimic movement and draw people’s attention. After 11 years of arranging Light up a Life, Yoast decided that it was time to draw the fundraiser to an end as his youngest children are now 18. 2020 was supposed to be the grand finale, but due to the pandemic, the final year has been postponed to 2021. “The son was very excited to be a part of the photo shoot, and I really liked the interaction of a boy and his father, working on a project together for the community,” Manthey writes in her book.
Daniel and Marilyn Caron, Kileen, Texas
This year, Daniel Caron’s Christmas light display has extra special meaning—it is in honor of his late wife, Marilyn, who passed away in July. Marilyn masterminded their decoration operation for about three decades before Daniel took the helm because of her declining health. For the 37th year, Daniel says that, as always, he will be opening up the house to visitors, but because of the pandemic, only a certain number of people will be allowed inside at once and he will post signs asking visitors to social distance and wear masks. “We need something to be happy about,” Daniel remarks. “It’s something I have to be doing as long as I can.” Family members have helped out greatly in preparing this year’s display, which includes a memorial for Marilyn with a special tree that visitors will be invited to decorate. While it is impossible to fit every single decoration that Marilyn had accrued over the years, Daniel says this year’s display will be bigger and better than ever.