Holiday Windows
Cheer Behind Glass
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 12/4/13

The Christmas season conjures visions of everything from snowmen to nutcrackers to chestnuts roasting over open fires. But city dwellers from New York to Tokyo can add the urbane pleasure of peering into opulently decorated shop windows. Beyond finding some holiday cheer, window gazers are likely to get a head-spinning glimpse at haute couture, a taste of the luxe life, a lesson in contemporary culture and a generous dose of razzle-dazzle.

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Simon Doonan  (b. 1953 | American display artist)
to  Bergdorf Goodman

“What kind of neurotic, exhibitionist psychopathology made me choose a career cavorting around arranging merchandise and props?” asks Simon Doonan in his 1998 memoir, Confessions of a Window Dresser. The mysterious impulses propelled Doonan to the height of his profession and made him a prince of holiday window decor. Doonan’s realm has been Barneys New York, the department store where, from 1986 to 2010, he created colorful, often controversial tableaux, many only vaguely connoting holiday spirit. They ran along the lines of “Neurotic Yule,” an homage to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and a “Have a Foodie Holiday,” in which chef Mario Batali’s head rested on a platter.

At nearby Bergdorf Goodman department store on Fifth Avenue, the design team of Linda Fargo and David Hoey often outshine Doonan in the opinion of many viewers. Fargo and Hoey’s haute couture–attired mannequins typically inhabit fantastically opulent, curiosity-filled settings—polar bears spar with one another, surrounded by dapper wolves in suits, or a mannequin extends a 15-foot arm laden with luxury handbags. “We’re drawn to extremes here,” says Hoey. “Minimalism is great. Maximalism is too. What we avoid is medium-ism.”

Simon Doonan  (b. 1953 | American display artist)
to  Walt Disney Company  (American media corporation | est. 1923)

Although many New Yorkers lament Manhattan’s so-called Disneyfication, others were delighted to see Minnie and Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Daisy Duck, Snow White, Cruella de Vil and other cartoon stars take up residence on Madison Avenue at Barneys New York during the 2012 holiday season. The main attraction was “Electric Holiday,” a display orchestrated by Simon Doonan’s successor as the chain’s creative director, Dennis Freedman. A three-minute animated film was shown on LED screens mounted on the first two levels of the building’s facade, following Minnie as she and her iconic friends cavort with such celebs as Sarah Jessica Parker and Lady Gaga and walk a fashion-show runway in Lanvin, Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana and other labels. Though naysayers griped that Minnie’s model guise appeared anorexic, the combination of fashion and Disney was sheer magic for many viewers. The display also elicited a word of praise not often uttered about Doonan’s own edgy holiday windows for Barneys New York: cute.

Walt Disney Company  (American media corporation | est. 1923)
to  Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center fields one of the world’s largest and most admired Christmas trees. Sleek art deco towers provide a soaring urban backdrop to the evergreen, almost always a Norway spruce, while city lights, the ice-skating rink, the spires of nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral and, around the corner, the famous Rockettes of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular conspire to complete a postcard-worthy holiday tableau. In keeping with its skyscraper surroundings, everything about the tree is outsize—65 to 110 feet tall, sparkling with 30,000 lights and topped with a Swarovski crystal star that is nine feet wide and weighs 500 pounds.

When it comes to grandiose Christmas displays, Manhattan is second only to Walt Disney World. A team of display artists sprinkles a mother lode of fairy dust over Orlando, Florida, to conjure the spirit of the season, stringing Cinderella Castle with 300,000 lights, concocting a 1,000-square-foot gingerbread house made with 1,000 pounds of honey and mounting the nightly Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights with more than 5 million bulbs twinkling in time to holiday music.

Rockefeller Center
to  Bergdorf Goodman

Even cynical urbanites, who can be scrooges any time of year, melt like spring snowballs at the sight of their city’s holiday decorations. Few annual civic events are more enthusiastically anticipated or deeply savored as the lighting of the tree in New York’s Rockefeller Center in early December. But throughout the season, a walk down city sidewalks becomes a flight of fancy, as department store displays beguile and beckon onlookers to get into the holiday mood. Macy’s was first to create special Christmas-themed windows, in 1870, and Lord & Taylor’s were first to feature animatronic holiday figures. Lord & Taylor’s New York flagship still deploys chugging trains and flying sleighs.

Unlike most city pleasures, looking doesn’t cost a thing—provided window gazers can resist the consumerist temptation to step inside the emporia. But the greater the spectacle, the more memorable the holiday experience. “We take it as a chance to cause a sensation and create something which might be remembered in the mind’s eye,” fashion expert Linda Fargo explains of her designs for windows at Bergdorf Goodman. “Like a vivid dream recalled from a good night’s sleep.”

Bergdorf Goodman
to  Wanamaker’s

Among decor aficionados, New York’s Bergdorf Goodman often takes the prize for what The New York Times has termed “decadent, intellectual art pieces that tickle both street crowds and museum snobs alike.” Nearby stores also woo spectators with unique approaches. Tiffany & Co. offers luxury-laden fantasies in windows where real diamonds add sparkle to seasonal spirit. Meanwhile Bloomingdale’s provides an au courant take on contemporary culture, with windows that often contain dozens of digital screens that project holiday animations or re-creations of Cirque du Soleil acrobatics.

But for simple old-fashioned spectacle, head to Philadelphia, where the holiday light show at Wanamaker’s department store has been a Christmas tradition since 1955. Macy’s now occupies Wanamaker’s historic 19th-century premises, yet the show goes on, with singer Julie Andrews’s voice-over on a charming light display of twitching snowmen and falling snowflakes that appear to travel down the seven-story Grand Court atrium. Tunes from the world’s largest operational pipe organ, built for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, accompany the show. No longer in use are the famous Enchanted Fountains, multicolored jets d’eau that once “danced” to Christmas carols. The aging waterworks have been removed, lest a leak dampen the cheer.

to  Tokyo Midtown

Shops worldwide decorate for Christmas. Philadelphia’s Wanamaker’s, one of the first department stores in the U.S.—credited with such innovations as the white sale and the price tag—staged Christmas celebrations since its opening, in 1874. Founder John Wanamaker was praised as “one of the inventors of Christmas as we know it,” who, for better or worse, “made the holiday far more important to Americans than it had been before.” The cathedral-like Wanamaker’s building has buoyed holiday spirits with carol singing, organ recitals and, since the 1950s, a beloved, relatively low-tech light show. Farther west, Chicagoans made pilgrimages to State Street to see the Marshall Field’s windows, and Dallas residents witness ever-more-outlandish displays at Neiman Marcus. At European department stores, Londoners have witnessed Liberty’s windows transform into a glamorous train, while Parisians enjoy Le Bon Marché’s glimpses of Left Bank life. But in Tokyo, one of the world’s most starkly modern displays appears in the Starlight Garden at Tokyo Midtown, a shopping, office and residential complex that functions as a city within the city. A sea of twinkling blue and white lights fills gradually in computerized choreography, resetting itself every few minutes for the next throng of onlookers.

Tokyo Midtown
to  Rockefeller Center

As the mid-century carol “Silver Bells” tells us, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks / Dressed in holiday style / In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas!” With their towering skylines and mazes of crowded sidewalks, New York and Tokyo are iconic, constantly changing cities. Their dense concentrations of steel, concrete, reflective glass and humanity are somehow ironically conducive to fostering holiday happiness.

Work on Rockefeller Center, the handsome 22-acre complex at the heart of New York’s holiday festivities, began in 1933, when the U.S. was in the depths of the Great Depression; its art deco–style buildings and landscaped promenades came to symbolize an irrepressible American spirit. Tokyo Midtown is one of Japan’s most ambitious urban projects, and it presents some of the most elaborate Christmas decorations in a country where the more colorful aspects of the Christian and retail holiday are celebrated with extraordinary zeal. Tokyo Midtown’s six towers, including the city’s tallest, were completed in 2007 amid a shaky economy, yet they suggest the promise of a new century. At ground level, holiday lights infuse this ultramodern cityscape with special magic, making it easy to put aside one’s woes, financial or otherwise.