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Where Have All The Christmas Windows Gone?

Once, we made special trips downtown this time of year, lining up to gape at mechanical bears eating porridge, Victorian cats celebrating in the snow and toy soldiers guarding over our happy holidays.

Now, those same jumbo-size windows in re-purposed downtown department store buildings offer views of advertising signs, old photos and waiters grinding $12 guacamole.

This is progress?

The grand old animated Christmas window displays of the sort that once had Woodies, Hecht's, Garfinckel's and Lansburgh's competing to demonstrate their creative extravagance are now relegated to nostalgic memories, scenes in old movies and on New York's Fifth Avenue (and even there, the competing stores' windows are all produced by one company).

The reasons for the demise of the Christmas window are well-known: The decline of the downtown department store, the rise of windowless big-box retailing, the replacement of family-owned local shops by big national chains and the triumph of convenience over showmanship.

"It was an amenity of the walking-around town," says William "Larry" Bird, a Smithsonian curator whose new book, "Holidays on Display," tells the story of the art and business of the window shows. "Department stores lived and died by their windows. They spared no expense. This was the secular creche."

Oddly enough, in this era in which technology has made it possible to personalize retailing as never before, consumers expect less in the way of service and splendor. Businesses that once rose or fell on their ability to lavish customers with service -- airlines, supermarkets, department stores -- now compete to cut costs to the bone. Any notion of romance in shopping has yielded to the utilitarian imperative.

Where Woodies in the 1970s spent $200,000 a year on animated window displays, Nordstrom, the Seattle-based department store, is now cutting back on its trademark piano players, eliminating live music from about half of its stores while trimming pianists' hours at others. (The chain's Virginia and Maryland outlets will keep pianos, company spokesman Brooke White says, but have shifted to a mix of live and recorded music because some customers prefer piped-in Alicia Keys and Tony Bennett over live jazz and Broadway standards.)

Nordstrom has an animated holiday display in the windows of one store, in downtown Seattle, where a Santa's Village show is maintained only because the company took over that location from a local business, Frederick & Nelson, which had a long tradition of Christmas windows.

Washington and most other big cities have gone a decade or more without holiday window displays, and though the art form may seen archaic and quaint to people growing up in a world of video walls and e-retailing, the tradition retains as strong a hold on the public imagination as Thanksgiving Day parades.

Bird recalls that when it became clear in 1994 that Woodies was about to die, the store put up one last Christmas display -- in October. Even as liquidators sold off the last items from the stockrooms, customers refused to believe the store would vanish. Even after the doors did close, customers kept showing up at holiday time to look for the windows.

When developer Doug Jemal, who owns the Woodies building on F Street NW, saw a steady stream of disappointed visitors outside, he and the downtown Business Improvement District installed animated soldiers, animals and dolls. Beatrice Bear stood in a Potemkin window reading " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" to passersby, and everyone agreed not to think about the empty building behind the display.

Today, the old Woodies is finally home to retailers again, sliced into spaces for clothing and furniture stores. But there are no holiday shows in those windows.

The original figures and scenery used in Woodies' shows are gone, Bird found. Many had been donated to Colonial Williamsburg, where they were cut down to fit the smaller storefronts. The passage of time, however, wore away the decorations. They were eventually tossed.

The time when stores had in-house designers and decorators is probably gone forever. But isn't it inevitable that a backlash will arise against cynical retailers who take advantage of our do-it-yourself, user-generated-content culture and push customers to bag their own groceries, carry their own peanuts onto planes, assemble their own furniture and figure for themselves whether the shoe fits?

Of course nobody needs a piano serenade while they shop for shirts or a Christmas show on their way to buy a gift. Anytime we lop off the fantasy and romance from our daily lives, though, we are hacking away at the quality of our existence.

By Marc Fisher |  December 9, 2007; 7:11 AM ET
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Comments

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No Marc it's not inevitable that there will be such a backlash. Saving time and money will continue to be paramount in a world where people increasingly have less of both.

I agree with you that this reality is less romantic, but I don't see it changing anytime soon.

Posted by: Shirlington | December 9, 2007 8:31 AM

Macy's bought Marshall Fields, so that stopped their fantastic, mechanical Christmas windows. Though, I was in New York the 1st week of November, and it looked like both Saks and Bergdorf were going to do something extravagantly fabulous for Christmas. Though I honestly don't think anything can beat Saks's window series in summer 2005 that was based on Hitchcock's The Birds. Where's the Walter Benjamin of the digital age?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 9, 2007 10:17 AM

Sorry, but this comes off as an old fogey whining about The Good Old Days.

PS- I've never met anyone outside of New York that gives a hoot about Thanksgiving parades.

Posted by: J | December 9, 2007 12:39 PM

You show a lack of Washington roots by not giving some love to Kann's Department Store, which was a fixture a little further south down 7th Street.

Posted by: CW | December 9, 2007 12:55 PM

My mom and I used to take the bus into D.C. and visit the windows at Woodie's every Christmas. This was long before the subway opened. Great memories.

We would wait for the bus home either browsing through the book department at Woodie's annex across the street from the main store or going to the coffee shop across from Ford's Theatre.

Posted by: SwissMiss | December 9, 2007 1:09 PM

Marc, I wouldn't worry about criticism of your piece as old fogy whining. What you describe brightened many peoples' lives back then, young and old. For someone such as I, who grew up in the Washington area, it was a nice column because it brought back memories of childhood visits to F Street to see Woodie's, Hechts, Kann's and Lansburghs. I remember that in the early or mid-1950s, lampposts were decorated as candy canes in the area around 7th and F Streets, NW. For a small child, as I was then, it all was quite a magical experience. Yes, the decorations had a commercial intent, attracting shoppers to the stores, but a child doesn't know that. Even my parents also enjoyed seeing the decorations -- as I said, they helped brighten lives. At least we still see the snowflake lights on the lampposts in the downtown business district.

BTW, I've been following the Post's message boards for a while and regardless of the subject, I've noticed a few people react to an issue in which they are not interested or a subject for which they have little or no empathy by saying the writer is "whining." The term is over used on the Post's comment boards, and actually often appears misused, in my view.

Again, thanks for writing the column.

Posted by: Interested observer | December 9, 2007 7:26 PM

Marshall Fields (Macys) on State Street in Chicago had mechanical Nutcracker displays in the windows just last week when I was there.

Posted by: M Street | December 10, 2007 10:23 AM

Once again, Marc Fisher laments the "hacking away at the quality of our existence", such as the loss of storefront holiday displays. Yet, he does not seem to understand or appreciate the value of preserving that same character in the form of our historic neighborhoods and structures. Historic protection is a simple, easy way to preserve some of that "quality of existence" that is otherwise being hacked away.

Posted by: anon | December 10, 2007 3:39 PM

Dupont Circle Main Streets has been sponsoring a window display contest for the past 2 or 3 years, though none of the windows will stir memories of the grand creations of yesteryear. But Axis Salon at least has a consistently creative window, as does Home Rule at 14th & S.

Posted by: Michael | December 12, 2007 3:56 PM

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