How (Not) To Make a Christmas Window
What does this peculiar, postmodern form of advertising mean today?
In the Christmas classic Home alone (1990), after the initial thrill of being left to one’s own devices has worn off, Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister walks home in the snow. An off-duty Santa tries to cheer him up with a handful of tic tacs (“My Elf Took the Last Candy Canes”) before Kevin walks past the window of a house not dissimilar to his own but populated with a wholesome Christmas scene. A family gathers around a tree, a mother hops with a baby, the camera pans to the rest of the house, which is similarly lit and full of dancing figures. A man looks straight into the camera for a moment, catches Kevin’s gaze and then quickly moves on. There’s nothing here for Kevin. He’s starting to feel like being alone at Christmas might not be the best thing he could have wished for after all.
Looking through a window and feeling longing feels so important to Christmas that it has become the basis of a very special tradition. The concept of the Christmas window display was developed by RH Macy’s in 1874. The New York department store was a dry goods store in a different location from its 34th Street location at the time, when decorators unveiled chains of china dolls depicting scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s cabin (1852) in the window. Less than a decade later, in 1883, displays became mechanized – and with it a worldwide arms race began. Holiday windows are now an institution, sparking queues around the block and inch by inch columns. In London, Harvey Nichols and Liberty are both putting on intricate displays, and Harrods is hiring designers to outfit 52 individual windows that surround the building.
The most famous display I live in has sparked something of a social media firestorm this year. The Christmas window at Fenwick, the flagship department store on Northumberland Street in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is a north-east institution. I remember visiting as a young child in the 1990s, queuing for hours in the cold to finally see an animatronic workshop scene of Santa Claus, a line of bearded elves manning a conveyor belt, grinding small wooden figures and returning their hammers down and over again.
Fenwick’s Christmas window displays were first mechanized in the 1970s, although static ones had been around for much longer. However, Fenwick’s 2022 window has turned out poorly. The store collaborated with illustrator Lauren Child, known for her naively designed children’s books. Fenwick Newcastle posted a social media video “revealing” the window online, which consists of nearly ten minutes of the illustrator describing the scenes from her window. Child introduces a slightly convoluted but ultimately sweet tale of making ends meet when the circus is canceled (“Christmas isn’t Christmas without a circus!” Apparently – isn’t it?). The Facebook reveal of Fenwick’s window attracted more than 1,300 comments, most disappointed, some very pissed off. When I went to see it, a woman was behind me, live-streaming her disappointment on her cell phone. Her children watched in confusion.
“Sorry but the one year we all needed a really heartwarming traditional Christmas theme and you’ve given us a mid-sized cardboard nothing. This year in particular, we all needed a lift. At least Tarquin and Saffron on the way back from Waitrose will like it,” read the top Facebook comment.
Holiday windows are no small feat today; Macy’s has a team of 200 people responsible for visual merchandising who work year-round to prepare the Christmas window. So it’s confusing when a brand is so wrong, especially when you know a lot of planning and resources went into it. There’s clearly been an attempt to hit all the right notes here: the story itself is a gentle tale about learning to live with disappointment and adversity, a subject that will seem particularly familiar to children who’ve experienced a pandemic. The cast of characters is diverse and nice enough, if not particularly memorable. One of the most common complaints was that the window wasn’t traditional enough; People seem to long for a time when Christmas was Christmas. “Middle class” paper cutouts are perhaps too self-referential, too postmodern. (In fact, the oldest surviving feature-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, created by German artist Lotte Reiniger in 1926, consisted of a series of paper cut figures dancing and moving in silhouette.) Paper cuts must have felt then as the perfect compromise, an ironic nod to artificiality of the medium without being demonstrative when people are struggling with a cost-of-living crisis. Oddly enough, that’s exactly how it is because people struggle with the fact that the window’s critics wanted to see something more; Many people complained that paper cuts looked like the store was trying to save money.
Conceptually, however, holiday windows are already a form of postmodern advertising. It’s not really the window itself that makes the advertising, but the crowd you can attract with it. After all, most department stores don’t sell mechanized figures that can be arranged into a tableau – why would they? The aim of the holiday window is not to be generally accessible to consumers, but to draw them in and fill them with festive longing. In his book on the history of festive window dressing, Smithsonian curator William L. Bird quotes Harry Harman, an “artistic decorator and window dealer” who worked in 1894, when the art form was relatively young. Excited shoppers are being forced to gather “in front of the most attractive storefront,” Harman said. ‘What better advertising could a retailer ask for?’ he asked.
later in Home aloneWhen Kevin’s loneliness is the least of his problems, he manages to distract Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s burglars by hosting a mock Christmas party at his home. The scene is strikingly similar to that of a mechanized Christmas window display: a mannequin dancing on a turntable; Kevin manipulates puppets with an intricate Rube-Goldberg-type rig of string and pulleys; A toy train carries a cutout of Michael Jordan in an endless loop. From the outside, with the rooms illuminated, music and the curtains drawn, the silhouettes dance, the house looks occupied and the burglars are persuaded to move on.
All windows are really like this: they are a frame that connects and divides, includes and excludes, they are perfectly placed to deceive, to show you things that you think will fulfill you before you finally enter having to trudge home in the snow. It’s really no wonder we’re so preoccupied with how to dress and frame that barrier for Christmas, when it matters most. It may seem banal, but it’s pretty clear that for many people, Christmas is the most important moment when it comes to connection – conversely, it’s also when exclusion, loss and poverty bite the hardest. As the literary historian Yuri Lotman puts it: “The notion of the border is an ambivalent one: it separates and connects.”
And if you’ve ever tried to photograph a Christmas window display, here’s another problem you’ve noticed: no glass is ever completely transparent to the viewer. A child who feels alone at Christmas does not see a happy festive scene, but their own isolation reflected back to them. Do black children looking into the window of RH Macy’s 1870s shop see a merry festive scene, or do they see figures (in all likelihood golliwogs) from a parable about their own dehumanization rendered as trinkets and cheerfully arranged so that other people’s families could buy them? , and unpack with a smile? Newcastle shoppers also saw their own reflection: struggling parents wanting something – anything – to avoid being a total disappointment. Ultimately, one doesn’t necessarily want to be reminded of the last two years of cancellations, of hopes raised and shattered, of the tenuousness of expectations, or how tenuous it all feels; Cardboard and paper figures that might have enchanted us as children but now look like just another savings exercise. It’s a tough world out there for a visual merchandiser as the contradictions of late capitalism collide: too extravagant and rubs it in, or wasteful; too humble and you let everyone down. Cheers, son is crying.