NEW YORK — Although the times have challenged such New York holiday traditions as big bonuses and shopping extravagances, at least one tradition remains in place: the New York holiday window.
Because they generally don't live in private houses, Manhattanites do not do much in the way of decorating their own windows. When you live on the 18th floor, you don't feel the need to rig festive lights for the benefit of passing pigeons or of neighbors who would just as soon like to believe that the two of you are not staring into each other's windows.
What window decorating goes on occurs largely in our commercial spaces, but it is a particularly localized phenomenon. Some of the world's finest boutiques are on Madison Avenue, in the Upper East Side, but the stores tend to be modest in size, and because they collectively serve as the neighborhood general store, their holiday windows are restrained and emphasize the merchandise.
It is the famous Fifth Avenue stores that, because they have big windows and big display budgets, and because they draw in the tourist trade, turn holiday window displays into a kind of multimedia performance — one in which merchandise takes second place to innovation.
On the cusp between these neighboring worlds is the flagship of Barneys New York, at Madison Avenue at 60th Street — right where you turn the corner for the Fifth Avenue stores. Barneys has come a long way from its days as a downtown discounter, but it has always tried to display a downtown aesthetic — a bit more cutting edge than the neighborhood to which it transplanted itself, the better to draw people off Fifth to have a look. This year, the windows celebrate the 35th anniversary of "Saturday Night Live," using large paper-mache dolls of SNL performers in memorable roles.
An unscientific survey has shown uncharacteristically low interest among passers-by. Perhaps that is because the windows went up long before Thanksgiving, they don't reference Christmas and they have a low-budget look. And how many of us are old enough to remember the Coneheads and John Belushi as a killer bee? (Actually, I am ...)
Around the corner, at the apex of the shopping stretch on Fifth Avenue, is Bergdorf Goodman. (The store is owned by Dallas's Neiman Marcus but maintains itself as a separate New York brand and holds to a New York aesthetic.) Bergdorf's straddles the avenue at 59th Street, with women's in the large building on the west side and men's opposite.
With its holiday windows, Bergdorf's has achieved a tour de force this year. The windows in the women's store are inspired by the prose and poetry of Lewis Carroll. The effect has correctly been described by David Hoey, the store's director of visual presentation, is "psychedelic Victorian." The best window is based on both Alice books and shows the figures from a deck of playing cards as mannequins in a field of red, seemingly ready to launch themselves horizontally through the glass, onto the street.
Small windows on the men's side across the street are themed around a tie-in with the movie "Fantastic Mr. Fox." The best is an interior scene at the law offices of Badger, Beaver and Beaver, L.L.P., which does rather look the part, except that the animals in the scene are too well dressed to be lawyers.
The corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue has, for many years, been the symbolic center of New York holiday shopping, by the clever addition annually of an enormous, illuminated snowflake stretched above the intersection. On the southeast corner is the Tiffany & Co. flagship, a big Art Deco mausoleum of a store with windows that are really transparent armor plate. One window is an eighteenth-century doll's house in white, with female figures abstractly rendered in paper. A couple of them rotate, the jewels that adorn them glistening as they are caught in the lights. The effect is as if peering into a snow globe that might have belonged to Louis XIV. Another window, using the same white-on-white technique, shows Cinderella heading toward her castle in her pumpkin coach, escorted by a diamond butterfly.
Continuing south along the same side of the avenue, Saks Fifth Avenue, which faces Rockefeller Center, favors windows that tell a complete story. This year, the story, narrated in an audio track that plays continuously, comes from the store's holiday book "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Flake." It's about a snowflake named Twinkle who leaps off her cloud, only to be sucked into an engine of a passing 747. She survives a whirl through the turbine and gets shot from the tailpipe. (Science majors, please do not send e-mails about the impossibility of remaining frozen in jet exhaust; it's a children's story, not a physics lesson.) She falls over Manhattan and ends up as a Twinkle in the eye of a baby appropriately named Noelle.
By long tradition, the most endearing windows are at the Lord & Taylor store at 38th Street. They are always themed around a particular take on Christmas, and use miniature, mechanically animated dolls. Because the theme this year is not time-specific, the dolls default to Edwardian dress, which approximates how people appeared on the opening date of the current flagship, in 1914. The theme is "What We Love ... (About Christmas)," and it is illusrated with gingerbread houses, by marionettes in Russian costume, by a party-cake carrousel and — because this is a commercial message, albeit without merchandise — by shoppers in front of the store at about the time of its own first Christmas.
As always, the dolls rotate, bow, open doors and otherwise add animated charm, all in finely crafted detail. Each window requires a bit of time to absorb. That can lead to long lines, and because tourists know that the Lord & Taylor windows are the place to be, locals, who don't take delays lightly, can find themselves frustrated. Insiders know, however, that the easiest way to get a view in a hurry is to cruise along the outside of the brass barrier that keeps the line in order. It's like a second-row seat at a fashion show — you can see well enough.
Lord & Taylor always seems to do Christmas right. Now if someone in the window-display department would please use its credibility to persuade management to remove those '70s mirrors enveloping the structural columns in the first floor, thereby restoring the elegance of the now-hidden 1914 originals, the Christmas spirit of the windows will continue more seamlessly within.
Lord & Taylor usually ends the tour, but on the opposite side of 38th Street, in a storefront put up by the XOXO chain, on the evening of "Black Friday" (the all-important shopping day following Thanksgiving), an attractive young model was helping another into a silky dress while a buff young man in jeans lay on the floor, taking pictures. It was as much street theater as display, and it's a reminder that in Manhattan, for the holidays or whenever else you please, you can be extravagant or budget-conscious, trendy or traditional — but people will always take notice if you are hot.