When department stores unveil their holiday windows, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. In the last 2 years, these windows have become signs of hope, goodwill, and optimism — more than ever before.
Christmas wasn’t canceled last year, but in Melbourne, where I live, Myer, our 1911 department store, canceled its 65-year-old tradition of Christmas windows due to COVID-19 concerns.
Melburnians were horrified as these windows equate to nostalgia and childhood memories. Each year over one million people normally file past the Bourke Street store. many with their pajama-clad children hoisted on their shoulders — their eyes agog at the window tableaus depicting treasured childhood classics such as The Nutcracker, Aladdin, and The 12 Days Of Christmas.
It felt like COVID had stolen Christmas — never mind the Grinch.
Myer relented and created in 6 weeks windows that would normally have taken its design team six months to finalize. It based Its 2020 windows on an original story it commissioned by writer Corinne Fenton called Christmas is Uncancelled.
Fenton says: “I felt strongly that the words for these windows had to be sincere, as right now the people of Melbourne need honesty. The words, ‘It’s Christmas After All’ came through loud and strong to me. After all, it infers that after all we’ve been through, in spite of the hard times, the struggles, the sickness, and the suffering, Christmas is still being celebrated by our city, by the Melbourne people, and by Myer.”
In one tableau, Santa’s workshop was in lockdown; elves wore masks and complained how stuck and bored they felt. But how they will find a way to save Christmas. And they did.
Attendance was sparser than usual, but the show went on.
Myer rising to the occasion made me think about what Christmas means. And how it’s more than spending money on gifts and a chance for department stores to showcase their wares. So many of our famous department stores see themselves as integral to the Christmas tradition using their windows to mirror the way the world is or could be.
So here’s what to expect from some of our best-loved department stores in our much brighter Christmas of 2021. A Christmas when people are out and about and even traveling overseas — placing them in the vicinity of some of the world’s great department stores.
1. Macy’s, New York City
Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street has decorated its windows every Christmas since 1874. The store’s first Christmas window was scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, using porcelain dolls. In 1883, the store introduced a panoply window (a circular track) showing Santa pulled by a reindeer. Word spread of Macy’s “miracle.”
Holiday window displays have since become a fixture in New York City, such as those at Lord & Taylor, Tiffany & Co., Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue. But when it comes to Christmas, people still think of Macy’s. Perhaps because scenes from the movie Miracle on 34th Street were shot in Macy’s. And many of Macy’s windows have been based on this famous film.
Last year was different. Macy’s dedicated its 2020 holiday windows to essential workers as “a form of a thank you letter to first responders, essential workers, marchers for equality, and New Yorkers who showed their grit, good humor, and hopeful spirit” during a particularly trying year.
This season, you can expect to meet Tiptoe, a gorgeous little blue reindeer who is too scared to fly until her friends help her out with a balloon flying machine. The balloons burst and Tiptoe discovers she can fly on her own even though she takes Santa on a bumpy ride. To fly, she only needed to believe.
In the accompanying commercial bound to reach you in the lead-up to Christmas, Tiptoe’s story ends with a little girl at the airport reluctant to fly to grandma’s and her father alleviating her fears by telling her Tiptoe’s story. She starts to feel confident, believing that she can board that plane — a timely message as we head out into the holiday season and the world.
2. Selfridges, London
Many of us know of Selfridges from the British television series about the founder Harry Gordon Selfridge. In 1909, Selfridge brought his department store concept from Chicago to London, including the American way of celebrating Christmas. He had every inch of his store decorated for the festive season. But the windows were, and remain, the real crowd pleaser. Selfridges window displays are sometimes controversial but always artistic and often feature the work of hip new artists.
This year’s theme is Christmas of Dreams. The windows draw inspiration from Busby Berkeley’s 1930s Hollywood visions and technicolor film musicals from the 1950s. There’s a focus on British actress and singer Jane Horrocks and drag artist and sculptor Juno Birch. It’s like Christmas on steroids.
In describing the dream theme, Andrew Keith, Selfridges Managing Director, said, “We know our customers have been dreaming of being together… And after a year of so many families being separated, this Christmas is for many a dream come true.”
3. Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, Paris
Galeries Lafayette on Haussmann Boulevard is one of the world’s most beautiful department stores. Opened in 912, the architecture was inspired by Opéra (the Parisian opera house), and the interior features striking Art Nouveau balconies and jaw-dropping stained-glass dome. Each year, the store hangs a gigantic Christmas tree from the dazzling dome trimmed in accordance with the theme set by the window display. For example, in 2015, the window’s theme was A Christmas From Another Planet with robots, Jedi, R2D2, and Stormtroopers, so the store decorated the Christmas tree with stars and meteorites.
Last year, the windows displayed 11 scenes showing Céleste, a little girl who traveled the world to meet fantastic characters (inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince). Ironically people couldn’t travel then, but the gaily colored display lifted people’s spirits — as Christmas should. Galeries Lafayette reveals this year’s theme on November 17, 2021.
Pro Tip: Galeries Lafayette is one of many incredible Christmas window displays in Paris. For a walk past the best displays, see The Best Things to Do In Paris During Christmas.
4. Brown Thomas, Dublin
The unveiling of the Brown Thomas Christmas window in Grafton Street marks the start of the festive season in Dublin. This year, Christmas came 127 days early. To make up for the Christmas that wasn’t, Brown Thomas launched the windows digitally last year. The 2021 Christmas windows are luminescent, shimmering theater sets, each representing a moment of festive celebration with a hint of glittering disco. The theme — Those Who Shine — showcases scenes around the Christmas table of people coming together with loved ones for gift giving and getting all glammed up for sparkling celebrations. A very different Christmas than last year.
5. Smith & Caughey’s, Auckland
All major cities seem to have a department store that has stood the test of time. In Auckland, Smith & Caughey’s has been in its present Queen Street location since 1884. The store is just reopening as Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, has been closed for almost 3 months during a lockdown. The much-loved tradition of Smith & Caughey’s Christmas window depicts the children’s book The Fairies’ Night Before Christmas by New Zealand writer Sarina Dickson, illustrated by Sarah Greig. The story is a Kiwi take on The Night Before Christmas. The windows depict a forest fairy community working together under the shade of Pōhutukawa trees, a tree known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree because of the blazing red flowers around Christmastime. The scenes show the fairies pulling together in a crisis and how resourceful, clever and adventurous they are. Onlookers will identify with the rousing scenes after what has been a challenging year. No doubt these windows will long be remembered. You can see the windows here.
6. Ogilvy At The McCord Museum, Montréal
Many Montrealers will recall the Christmas tradition of visiting Ogilvy’s windows. The custom-made scenes by the German toy manufacturer Steiff featured mechanical toy animals, such as dancing ducks, cheeky monkeys, adorable hedge-hogs, and jumping frogs. These window displays were among the last of their kind in North America, and visiting them had been an annual tradition since 1947.
Part of that tradition was standing in the snow and warming one hand curled around a cup of hot chocolate.
Ogilvy donated the beloved installations to the McCord Museum in 2018. The Mill in The Forest scene is outdoors, so the snow boot viewing tradition continues. The second display, The Enchanted Forest, is inside. The outside attraction is free. The McCord Museum is also offering free entry to its interior from October 13, 2021, to January 19, 2022.
Last year, Melbourne Museum held a similar display called Make Believe the Story of the Myer Christmas Windows, showcasing 65 years of Myer’s Melbourne windows. Museums recognize how these windows are an important part of our social history — of how they offer a window into a community’s soul.
7. Myer, Melbourne
Myer Melbourne was started by Sidney Baevski Myer, a penniless Russian who spoke little English who emigrated to Australia in 1899 and sold goods door-to-door. His store became the biggest department store in the southern hemisphere. While no longer the largest, the store is ingrained in our culture. My parents took me to see the Myer Christmas windows when I was a child, and I, in turn, took my children.
Myer Melbourne will launch its windows on November 14, 2021. Like many department stores, the theme is under wraps to increase the mounting excitement. But no doubt, it will be a tearjerker. I’m almost sorry I won’t be in the country to see the unveiling. But Australians can travel again, so I will visit my family in the U.S. I imagine the tears will definitely flow as Melburnians file past those famous windows, and I file past customs into the arms of family.
In Melbourne, we spent more time under stay-at-home orders (we call them lockdowns) than any other city in the world — 262 days or nearly 9 months, since March 2020. Like many Melburnians, I stopped counting days. The Christmas windows signal our freedom. And whether it’s Fortnum & Mason, London; Bergdorf Goodman, New York City; Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh; or KaDeWe, Berlin, each city has its famous Christmas windows. What will your city’s holiday windows mean to you this year?
Here are some other Christmas events to consider: