“Yay, yay, yay, lights!,” said Michelle Obama, the former first lady, on Monday night as she prepared to press a giant white button to officially unveil the holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue.
With the motion, miles of bulbs fixed to the limestone facade flickered on, transforming the 10-story, neoclassical building into a twinkling, multicolored ice castle. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” blared from speakers. The black window curtains rose, revealing bobbing houses, twirling coconuts and leaping dolphins in bright, saturated colors. Fireworks shot off the roof.
Each window was inspired by children’s drawings of holiday dreams — of homes, beaches and games. “The style is sort of candy-coated imagination,” said Andrew Winton, the senior vice president of creative at Saks, who oversees the holiday displays.
Mrs. Obama was there to promote a partnership between Saks and the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance. In addition to a $1 million donation, the store curated capsule collections with some of Ms. Obama’s favorite design labels, including Jason Wu, Philip Lim and Oscar de la Renta, with 100 percent of the net proceeds this year going to the foundation. The collections include clothing, housewares, beauty and accessories.
Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic and crowds lined police barricades. But despite the pyrotechnics, the lavish tradition of handcrafted holiday windows, which have been attracting shoppers to midtown Manhattan for the last century, is waning.
Lord & Taylor, Barneys New York and Henri Bendel, once destinations for their ornate displays, have shut their flagships in recent years. Today only a handful of department stores in New York City — Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s — are producing elaborate traditional window displays. (Instead of holiday windows, Nordstrom will cover the store’s 57th Street location with 50 miles of lights, 150 trees and seven 11-foot-tall Nutcrackers.)
“It is so sad when another of our competitors closes; it makes us have to work that much harder,” said John Klimkowski, the senior director of visual merchandising at Bloomingdale’s, who has been overseeing window design at the retailer for a decade. With less to see, he added, “ours have to be even more memorable.”
Macy’s is credited with bringing holiday windows to New York City in 1874, with an extravagant display on 34th Street in Herald Square. Over the years, now-shuttered stores along Fifth Avenue competed in a creative arms race to outshine one another with eye-popping installations that drew crowds and inspired family traditions.
“Most of them did not feature merchandise,” said Sheryll Bellman, the author of “Through the Shopping Glass: A Century of New York Christmas Windows.” “It was to delight the public. It was their gift to the city.”
Last year, as the pandemic made it more difficult for window dressers to work in person and get needed supplies, some of the department store displays were toned down. Crowds were also sparse. (Saks put up its windows and had a light show attended by Jennifer Lopez and her then-fiancé Alex Rodriguez, but there was no audience and no fireworks.)
This year, with retailers bullish about the holiday shopping season, the meticulous windows and tradition-minded fans have returned.
At Bergdorf Goodman on Nov. 18, the crowds stood shoulder-to-shoulder on both sides of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, as a string band played jaunty Christmas classics. Santa posed for photos and rang sleigh bells.
“Life is turning around again,” said Linda Fargo, the Bergdorf Goodman fashion director, as the department store unveiled its holiday windows.
In one window, there was a mermaid in a sequined magenta dress by C.D. Greene resting on a bedazzled motorcycle surrounded by pointy-nosed fish. In another, a mannequin in an embroidered gold Schiaparelli dress and jacket was dancing on the moon. Down the row, fluffy white-and-black dogs surrounded a figure in a puffy winter coat.
Each celebrate different moods, including adventurous, harmonious and frisky. David Hoey, Bergdorf’s senior director of visual presentation, said the windows were inspired by a psychedelic sculpture of a green bird. “Last year was kind of minimalism,” Mr. Hoey said. “This year is maximalism which is our trademark.”
Mariana Morales, 18, a student from Guatemala City, was in town with her family. She tries to visit the windows as often as she can but was unable to do so last year because of the pandemic. She said she almost cried when she saw the Bergdorf display. “You feel like you’re transported to a different world,” she said.
At Macy’s, which also unveiled its windows on Nov. 18, the look and feel were more traditional. The windows tell the story of Tiptoe, a spunky reindeer trying to believe she could fly. The visuals were influenced by old Claymation Christmas films, according to Manny Urquizo, the national window and campaign director for Macy’s.
On Saturday afternoon, as fast-walking shoppers juggled bags and a street cart sold roasted nuts, Carlye Allen, her husband and their 2-year-old son took in the festive windows. The family was in town from Arlington, Tex., for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Ms. Allen, 28, a wedding photographer, said that between the lights, smells and sounds, “it feels like we’re in a Hallmark movie.
“One-hundred percent living the dream,” she said.
Holiday music also filled the streets in front of Bloomingdale’s. The store’s designers stuffed the windows along Lexington Avenue with objects that delighted them as children, like dinosaurs and crocheted blankets.
There was a T. Rex covered in ornaments riding a skateboard. Another window had penguins in parkas surrounded by figurines. Down the line, a hot pink mannequin in glittery roller skates twirled around in a sequined clamshell.
On the other side of the glass, Jeannie Dumas, 66, a clinical social worker, and her daughter, Alexandra, who live in Brooklyn, were admiring the displays. They have a tradition of visiting the stores together but didn’t feel safe doing so last year. The pair was excited to be back and took comfort in returning to see the windows.
“We’ve been through a trauma,” Ms. Dumas said. “To do things that are ritualistic brings a sense of safety and healing.”