New York City’s Holiday Windows: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

From Fifth Avenue to Macy’s to Bloomingdale’s, New York City’s plethora of famous holiday window displays truly is the gift that keeps on giving.


Mandeep Kaur

New York City’s holiday window displays began with the 1874 Macy’s display of scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wildly different from the displays that exist today.

From Saks Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf Goodman to Macy’s and beyond, holiday window displays have taken over Midtown Manhattan yet again, ushering in the most wonderful time of year. Department stores across the city have unveiled their annual holiday displays, ranging in themes from Christmas tales to stories of reconnecting families and holiday dreams.

The tradition of holiday windows was brought to the city in 1874 by R. H. Macy, who debuted the infamous Christmas windows on 14th Street — the store has since moved to Herald Square. However, the first display followed a very different tone than those we see today; Macy’s chosen display was various scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, brought to life in the windows by porcelain dolls.

Following Macy’s lead, numerous other department stores began reimagining their windows for the holiday season, combining various art forms and Christmas lights into stunning displays that amassed attention from tourists and city residents alike. Today, thousands of people frequent the displays each day, braving the cold weather and sidewalk traffic to view and take pictures alongside them. 

This year’s displays follow the inspirational themes set in the past few years. At Macy’s, the window displays tell the story of Tiptoe, a reindeer who hopes to fly alongside Santa for Christmas. Through the windows, crowds watch Tiptoe’s story as she learns to fly with the help of her friends, eventually gaining the confidence to fly alongside Santa’s sleigh team all on her own. The display highlights the wonder of the holiday season while emphasizing the importance of confidence, belief, and perseverance.

Aparna Saha ’22 visits the city’s window displays every holiday season, just after Thanksgiving. She said, “I enjoy the Macy’s window displays because they truly add to the festive and cheerful spirit of the holiday season.” (Mandeep Kaur)

Kyi Lin Thar ’22 visited the displays just days after Thanksgiving and thinks the current windows are among the store’s best. “Seeing the displays is one of my favorite parts of the holidays,” he said, “I’ve always really liked the windows in general, and I think this year’s displays were really cute. I liked going down the block and just seeing Tiptoe’s story come together.”

Just a short, five-minute train ride from Macy’s are the popular windows and light show at Saks Fifth Avenue. After their initial popularity, Saks Fifth Avenue was among the stores that adopted the holiday window displays tradition. However, the Saks Fifth Avenue window displays are often much more modern and elegant than those at Macy’s. While the Macy’s windows are often cartoonish, heart-warming, and tell a story, those at Saks Fifth Avenue typically embody the holiday spirit differently, using mannequins and elements of design to create more mature holiday-themed displays, such as their 2018 “Theater of Dreams” theme, which featured intricately designed mannequins and outfits in renditions of various fairy tales.

The 2021 Saks Fifth Avenue window displays are different from anything the store has ever done before, capturing holiday wonder in a  more youth-centered approach. Forgoing the past mannequins and mature art forms, this year’s windows were designed based on drawings from children throughout the city. Each child’s drawing encapsulated their holiday dreams and was then brought to life by the engineers at Saks.

This year’s Saks Fifth Avenue window theme has been widely popular among viewers. Farsiana Tarique ’22 much preferred it over their past displays. She says, “I thought the choice of representing the city by basing the displays off of the drawings of kids from New York was really interesting and it turned out really cute. The windows were really abstract in a good way.” (Aparna Saha)

Public response to this theme has been overwhelmingly positive. Of the displays, Aparna Saha ’22 said, “The bright, colorful displays add a lot to the festive and cheerful spirit of the holiday season. Since some of the displays are based on the creative and fun drawings sent by children, they are even more special and beautiful this year.”

Alongside the window displays is an additional festivity unique to Saks: the Saks Fifth Avenue Holiday Light Show, a brilliant projection set against the side of the Saks building across from Rockefeller Center. The light show first began in 2004 with projected snowflakes lit by seventy thousand LED lights, blinking to the tune of “Carol of the Bells.” The light show has changed in many ways since its initial debut, featuring various designs, songs, and colors throughout the years. This year, the light show features over seven hundred thousand LED lights in the design of a castle, accompanied musically by portions of “Christmas – Baby Please Come Home” by Darlene Love and “So Happy Together” by The Turtles. The show begins around 4:30 P.M. and happens every ten minutes for seven hours, with each show lasting about 5 minutes.

Kyi Lin Thar ’22 thinks that the popularity of the Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show is well-deserved. He said, “I love the window displays, but there are multiple stores doing them, so they aren’t that unique. The Saks Light Show is something that only they do, so it makes sense that it’s as popular as it is.” (Mandeep Kaur)

Further down Fifth Avenue lies the Bergdorf Goodman holiday windows. Bergdorf Goodman’s windows famously air on the side of extravagance, creating unique window displays through the use of intense detail and embellishment.

This year, Bergdorf Goodman’s window displays express the theme of “The Present Moment” as they illustrate the joyous moments in life, such as the chaotic happenings of an apartment and a still of a candy maker. The displays were inspired by freedom, adventure, and a lack of inhibition. Many of the contents are open to interpretation — such as the mannequin dressed in gold with accessories posed on top of a blue moon.

Although Bergdorf Goodman’s windows draw many fans for their elaborate, abstract displays, they are not well-received by everyone. Farsiana Tarique ’22, although appreciative, was generally unimpressed by the displays. She said, “The Bergdorf Goodman windows are always really different from the other window displays, and I think that works in their favor because people want to see new, unique stuff even when it’s unusual. I didn’t really like their displays this year because they were sort of chaotic and hard to follow, but I still enjoyed visiting them and thought they were interesting.”

Farsiana Tarique ’22 is not a fan of the extravagance of Bergdorf Goodman’s window displays. She said, “I think the quality of abstract art depends on the person looking at it, so I can’t speak for everyone, but I didn’t really like the displays this year. The theme was interesting, but I didn’t see a connection between most of the windows and their theme.” (Mandeep Kaur)

New York City’s holiday window displays are an indispensable part of the holiday season. Although much has changed since the days of R.H. Macy’s porcelain doll-centered displays, the general festivity and holiday spirit captured by the windows is unwavering and will continue to draw crowds for years to come.

“Seeing the displays is one of my favorite parts of the holidays,” said Kyi Lin Thar ’22, when asked about the Macy’s displays. “I’ve always really liked the windows in general, and I think this year’s displays were really cute. I liked going down the block and just seeing Tiptoe’s story come together.”