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Xmas Windows: Something To See

My Sunday column on the disappearing and diminished Christmas windows that once made downtown department stores such a destination for family trips drew an unusually large and vehement response--and a very much divided one.

Those who grew up with annual journeys to see the animated characters in the windows sent me hundreds of accounts, many of them quite moving, about their childhood memories and the connections they retain between the stories in those windows and the warmth and love their parents showed around holiday time.

And some younger readers who have a completely different set of December associations were not only left flat by the descriptions of what department store windows once meant, but were even actively annoyed by what they saw as another outburst of Old Fogeyism among the always-self-centered boomers.

But there was another category of readers whose responses were especially gratifying: Those who recommended places to go where you can still get some of the flavor of that grand tradition of turning the retail streetscape into a venue for telling great stories in a way that taps into our imaginations.

So here are some spots where the fine art of Christmas window displays is still being practiced, albeit not with the animated figures that made the old department store shows so alluring:

(Oh, one last story before the list: Reader Anita Whitlock, who worked from 1955 to 1963 as a secretary in the executive office of Woodies, recalls that the store's big display window facing both 11th Street and G Street displayed live penguins at some point. "And tragedy struck with a display of live deer when one night a deer jumped through the glass and killed itself," she writes. "Seeing its reflection was the explanation. It was horrible, but I don't remember that there was any kind of outcry as there would be now.")

You can see a recreation of those Woodies windows at The Washington Home & Community Hospices, 3720 Upton St. NW, where activities director Barrington Scott says they have put together a display featuring "a puffing choo-choo train, skaters twirling about on glistening ice, and a candy-roofed gingerbread house designed especially for our residents."

Terry Bell of Ilo Salon in Georgetown says the shops on Book Hill, that pretty stretch of Wisconsin Avenue NW from P to R streets, "have for the last four years encouraged the store owners to decorate their windows for the holidays. This year on December 1st, we held a Holiday Festival which included street entertainers and live music. Each store contributed to the occasion" and the contestants in the Best Window contest remain on display. "The holiday window is being kept alive by small business, " Bell says.

Dupont Circle merchants are conducting a contest to see which shop puts up the best holiday window decorations. You can vote here.

Along Kensington's Antique Row, Margaret Goldsborough of Goldsborough Glynn Partners Antiques sent along photos of some very cozy Christmas scenes from her windows, along with an alluring report about the windows that her friends along the row have decorated. "It's not over-the-top or animated, but I hope you will agree that it has the spirit of the season," she says. "There are some other fun windows in our little two-block shopping district--particularly Jill & Company and Sally Shaffer Interiors."

At Home Rule on 14th Street NW in the District, the ninth annual Christmas display features a Hansel and Gretel-inspired gingerbread house constructed with waffle roof tiles baked in artist Rod Glover's oven, as well as sparkling licorice trim, graham cracker bricks and marshmallow treats. The house is on display through Jan. 3 at 1807 14th St. After the holidays, the house will be auctioned off with proceeds benefiting the Corcoran College of Art + Design.

One more in the District: Readers Don Montuori and Carolyn Cosmos suggest a visit to the 600 block of Pennsylvania Ave. SE, where four storefronts offer holiday displays. At the office of Pardoe Coldwell Banker realty, there's a winter wonderland that Cosmos describes: "trains zipping around a mountain, little villages, tiny figures on skis, a holiday carnival with rides that go round & round, and a giant Santa with a Rudoph who nods his head. You can see parents taking their kids by."

Kirk Randall of Fairfax and several other readers pointed me toward that fabulous repository of Americana, Shenandoah Caverns:

Christmas displays "are not lost; they have just moved to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Since 1996, a number of department store holiday window displays have been preserved by Earl Hargrove, the owner of Shenandoah Caverns and the nearby American Celebration on Parade museum. The displays are fully operational and you can see the figurines move as they did many decades ago. Mr. Hargrove's father began the family business of constructing elaborate window displays for many of Washington's finest department stores. Son Earl then expanded the business to include the construction of elaborate floats that continue to appear in Thanksgiving and Presidential inagural parades. To this day, his company provides the elaborate decorations for many presidential inagural activities. You can view Mr. Hargvove's collection of parade floats, department store displays, and an underground cavern to boot, only 100 miles from the Beltway in Mr. Jackson, just off of I-81.

And a bit farther afield, as reader Richard Neimiller alerts us, in Meyersdale, Pa., a collection of more than 35 window displays has been salvaged from old Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas windows and turned into six stories--there's a lovely video at www.thestorybookcastle.com that gives you a taste of the fantasies that spin out there.

What's missing from this list? Come ahead with the window displays you're especially taken with, anywhere in the Washington region.....

By Marc Fisher |  December 12, 2007; 7:21 AM ET
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Comments

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There is a seafood restaurant on Route 40 near Ellicott City (Crab Shanty) that goes way out for Christmas decorations. They have the original sled from the movie 'Holiday Inn' on display. If you're in the Ellicott City area, drop in for brunch, lunch or dinner at the Crab Shanty and take it all in. But call first for reservations.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 12, 2007 10:55 AM

Actually what is missing is a decent title to this blog.

It is called "Christmas", not xmas.

There is a reason for the season, and it ain't "X".

Posted by: SoMD | December 12, 2007 1:16 PM

I don't recall Xians as being so sour, SoMD. Let me guess; Your evangelical heritage runs deeper than either your grace or tact.

Posted by: Mark | December 15, 2007 6:53 PM

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