Christmas in New York: The City's Best Holiday Window Displays
If your idea of the holidays involves glittering lights, bright colors, jingle bells, and the sort of magic that only exorbitant budgets can make possible, then New York City beats the North Pole every time. From right before Thanksgiving until right after the New Year, Manhattan’s big retailers go all out to create eye-popping Christmastime window displays at their flagship locations on Fifth Avenue or nearby, competing with ever more elaborate vignettes, whether motorized, interactive, artsy, or elegant. A merry union of commerce and creativity, it’s a tradition that can fill even the grouchiest Grinch with a sense of childlike wonder. Follow along on our walking tour of the jolliest spots.
But first, a word of warning: Expect intense crowding along this route, especially during weekends and at mid-day. Sidewalks may be stuffed with rows of shoulder-to-shoulder tourists, and you might have to wait in a line to see some windows. Foot traffic can be marginally less hectic early or late in the day and on weekdays, but no matter when you go, the crowd-averse will need to exercise patience. 'Tis the season to test your commitment to peace on earth and goodwill to humankind.
Start your holiday window gawking where the tradition began. Macy’s has been wowing shoppers of all ages with elaborate yuletide displays since the 1870s—an annual project that now takes nearly a year of planning, three weeks of installation, and more than 200 decorators, graphic artists, sculptors, animators, carpenters, electricians, and audiovisual pros. The store’s six windows along Broadway are among the most high-tech (and animated) in the city, with falling snow, twirling critters, bustling city scenes, and interactive elements. Expect also a starring role for Santa since, after all, this is the spot where he performed his Miracle on 34th Street. Each year, the store’s windows along that thoroughfare tell the famous tale of “Yes, Virginia."
Pictured above: part of 2018's display
The 2018 holiday season is your last chance to see festive decorations at Lord & Taylor's grand Italian Renaissance-style building on Fifth Avenue (from Macy’s, head east until you reach Fifth, turn left, and then continue on the left side of the street for a few blocks). For decades, Lord & Taylor’s six big windows between 38th and 39th streets were bona fide New York City holiday icons—not just for the swirling snow globes, smiling elves, and cute woodland creatures on display, but also for the way they were dramatically raised to street level via old-fashioned hydraulics. But in a reflection of changing economic fortunes, the century-old flagship store is closing so that WeWork can convert the building into communal workspaces. For Lord & Taylor's final Christmas on Fifth Ave., only two windows will be decorated. They're intended as a thank-you to New York for all the years of business. No, you're crying into your hot chocolate.
Pictured above: part of 2017's display
If you take this tour in the evening, you won’t have any trouble spotting Saks Fifth Avenue on the right side of the street as you continue northward. Roughly every 10 minutes after 5pm, an extravagant light show fills 10 stories of the building’s façade with an explosion of color and flashing winter designs, all timed to booming Christmas carols. Imagine a cross between the Bellagio fountain show in Las Vegas and Clark Griswold’s holiday décor in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation—only without the water or threat of electrocution. At street level, Saks’s windows typically convey a kind of fairytale luxury, as in 2016’s Nutcracker-themed display (which looked like the world’s fanciest candy shop) and 2017’s collaboration with Disney commemorating the 80th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Now pause to feast your eyes on the most iconic symbol of a New York City Christmas: the tree at Rockefeller Center, located just across Fifth Avenue from Saks. Stationed amid an ice rink, Art Deco skyscrapers, and statues of gods, the tree is lit every year in a public ceremony held on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving (the 2012 event is pictured above). Most years, you’ll find a Norwegian spruce that stands roughly 70 feet tall and serves, according to the Rockefeller Center website, as a “holiday beacon for New Yorkers and visitors alike.” That may sound grandiose, unless you see pictures of the tree decked out in red, white, and blue after September 11 or standing next to a long line of workers during the Great Depression, and you suddenly realize you’re humming “Joy to the World” and there’s a lump in your throat.
Speaking of pictures, the ones you snap will almost certainly have a horde of strangers crowding the frame: An incredible 500,000 people pass through this plaza each day during the holiday season. Looking to avoid crowds? Haha, you're adorable. Still, the smallest multitudes swarm the plaza early in the morning (before 10am) and late at night (after 10pm). The ice rink stays open from 8:30am to midnight.
Leaving Rockefeller Center, turn left to reach the fancy-schmanciest portion of Fifth Ave., home to legendary jewelry retailers Tiffany & Co. (at 57th St.). At once playful and elegant, Tiffany’s showcases its wares in small-scale windows where strings of pearls double as Christmas tree garlands and sparkling diamonds, rubies, and emeralds serve as stars, chandeliers, the ice in a frozen pond, or even the features on gingerbread men. Tiffany’s signature shade of robin-egg blue is, of course, the go-to accent color. If all this window shopping has made you hungry, Tiffany's Blue Box Cafe on the fourth floor is open during the day—and yes, you can have breakfast there.
Cross 57th St. and travel one block north of Tiffany's, keeping on the left side of the street, and you'll come to our final Fifth Avenue stop (but not the last stop on the tour), Bergdorf Goodman. This long-lived luxury department store for the 0.01% pursues a policy of "fantastical storytelling" in its holiday window displays. In practice, that means bold colors and a somewhat hallucinatory ambience with few discernible links to any December holiday. You might find a high-fashion take on a natural history museum (as in 2016), a neon salute to New York cultural institutions (2017), or a visual sugar rush inspired by candy (2018). Prominent space is given to gowns, shoes, jewelry, and outerwear going at prices higher than the per capita GDP of several small countries.
Having exhausted the department store supply on Fifth Ave., turn right on 60th St. and you'll come across Barneys at the intersection with Madison Ave. The luxury retailer is known for end-of-year collaborations with high-profile charities and creative types who not only come up with five surreal window concepts, but also limited-edition merchandise to raise money for a worthy cause. In the past, this has resulted in displays showing Minnie Mouse getting a runway makeover, Lady Gaga reimagined as a couture insect, a talking steampunk owl courtesy of film director Baz Luhrmann, and, from Jay Z’s year, a sportscar-esque sleigh ride with a dressed-to-the-nines Santa and Mrs. Claus. The store's 2018 partnership with Save the Children centers on coins to highlight the importance of making change (get it?). One of 2017's windows, depicting a futuristic "Mushroom Singularity" envisioned by design duo the Haas Brothers, is pictured above.
At 60th and Madison, make a right and then at the next block a left onto 59th St., which you'll follow for a couple blocks before bringing your journey of window appreciation to a close at another landmark of NYC shopping, Bloomingdale’s at 59th and Lexington Ave. Like Macy’s (which now owns both chains), Bloomingdale’s has roots in the mid-19th century, but its attitude is less traditional and more upscale than its corporate cousin, in keeping with the flagship store’s stylish Art Deco exterior and reliably inventive holiday window displays (part of 2018's design, promoting the latest film adaptation of Dr. Seuss's The Grinch, is pictured). The place tends to look the way we imagine Jay Gatsby would have had his Long Island mansion decorated for Christmas—lots of gold, crystal, mirrors, and light, creating a cosmopolitan mood that’s festive but not especially cuddly. We mean that in a good way; what’s New York without a little cool sophistication?