Secrets to Seeing New York’s Best Christmas Windows

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Christmas windows at Macy's
Santa and Mrs. Claus at Macy's in New York. Photo: DiabloDale

By Suzanne Russo in New York—

There are few cities that do the holidays like New York does the holidays (and we’re not even biased). Whether it’s the trees on Park Avenue that become a parade of gleaming white or Radio City Music Hall all done up with its enormous tree of lights (and its long-legged ladies), Gotham doesn’t mess around when it comes to “festive.”

Then, of course, there is the holiday extravaganza that is 5th Avenue. And Macy’s. And, well, any department store that is worth its salt in window displays. But where to go? And how to fight the crowds and actually enjoy the festival of lights without losing your mind? We’ve got your holiday window walking tour right here.

Stop 1: Macy’s
34th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Subway: N/Q/R/B/D/F to Herald Square

NYC Christmas windows map

Click to see these windows on a map.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Macy’s kicked off the holiday season with that little parade it held on Thanksgiving Day. Santa made his first appearance of the season and the holidays were off to a rip-roaring start. Enter 34th Street, home not only to Macy’s but to that magical holiday story, “Miracle on 34th Street,” which is retold in adorable animatronics nodding their heads and flying their reindeer legs in the Macy’s windows on 34th.

Stop 2: Lord & Taylor
424 5th Ave at 39th St

From Macy’s, head east to 5th Avenue and north to 39th Street to check out Lord & Taylor’s incredible, and historic, panes. In 1938, this upscale department store displayed the first ever animated holiday windows. To this day the trendsetting store does it up right. To maintain the unadulterated Christmas spirit, windows are simply the festive animated scenes, no merchandise allowed.

Detour: For a fun treat, and a quick bout of warmth, make a pit stop on the way to Lord & Taylor. At 36th Street, head an extra block east to Madison Avenue to the Morgan Library. Yes, you’ll have to pay an admission price here ($15), but you’ll see the original manuscript of a quintessential bit of Christmas: Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol, all bound in lovely leather as once gifted to his solicitor.

Stop 3: Saks Fifth Avenue
611 5th Ave between 49th and 50th

From Lord & Taylor, you have a bit of a stroll along 5th Avenue (stop into the New York Public Library at 42nd Street to see their giant tree) to the next set of windows. But once you reach Saks Fifth Avenue you’ve got lights galore for miles—or at least several blocks.

But we’ll start with Saks, where the windows are grand but the highlight is the glorious light show which has snowflakes dancing across the 10-story building. Arrive here after dark to partake in the full spectacle, and since you’re in the neighborhood, make a pilgrammage across the street to Rockefeller Center and its famous tree.

Fun fact: The snowflakes, inspired by William “Snowflake” Bentley’s snowflake photos from the 1920’s, are made from more than 40 LED modules (that’s 2.5 miles of lights) but consume only 2600W, the energy equivalent of three toaster ovens. Go Saks! Out of town Cheapos can see the snowflake dance here.

Stop 3: Fifth Avenue
50th Street to 59th Street

After gaping at the at the snowflake show, which takes place every 15 minutes, it’s a slow stroll up Fifth Avenue for some incredible windows and gorgeous lights. Highlights include the gleaming UNICEF snowflake which hovers over 5th Avenue at 57th Street, the red bow of lights that wraps the Cartier building at 52nd (we’ll unwrap that!) and, of course, the classy and captivating displays at a certain store whose signature bows (and boxes) are not red but blue. Not sure what we’re talking about? You’ll happen upon this little shop of Audrey Hepburn fame at 727 Fifth Ave between 56th and 57th.

Also in the hood are Henri Bendel (712 Fifth Avenue at 56th Street), where the windows this year celebrate scenes from The Nutcracker, and Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Avenue at 58th Street), with its futuristic “Wish You Were Here” travel theme.

Stop 4: FAO Schwarz
767 5th Avenue at 58th Street

When you hit 58th Street, take a detour into FAO Schwarz, toyland itself, where you can warm up in the cafe or pounce on the giant piano a la Tom Hanks in Big. Nothing says Christmas like being a kid again.

Stop 5: Bloomingdale’s and Dylan’s Candy Bar
59th Street and Lexington Avenue

If you’ve still got energy after all that, head east on 58th Street to Bloomingdale’s (59th Street and Lexington Avenue), where the digital screens give a more modern, techie holiday feel. Then replenish your energy with a pit stop at the colorful Dylan’s Candy Bar (1011 Third Avenue at 60th Street).

Cheapos take note: This last stop, a candy heaven founded by Dylan Lauren (daughter of Ralph) is certainly sweet with its 5,000-plus types of candy, but it’s sensory overload, especially at this time of year. Be prepared to fight crowds for your candy fix. And please refrain from shoving small children—there are plenty of chocolate-covered gummy bears to go around.

For a quieter respite, you might instead head over to the iconic Serendipity (225 East 60th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues) to, er, warm up over a heaping glass of their famous frozen hot chocolate ($8.75). Sound coutnerintuitive? It may be cold, but it’ll warm the heart!

Browsing Tips:

Here’s the thing Cheapos: You’re going to run into crowds on this gazing excursion. There may even be lines to see some windows. To minimize the headaches, try going later in the evening.

Stores close between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., so have dinner, maybe a drink (or two) and then make your way out to check out the lights. You’ll still run into fellow light-gawkers, but at least the shopping throngs will have dispersed by then.

Did Ya Know?

A few fun facts about holiday windows…

1) The holiday window tradition started in the 1840s, when stores displayed wrapped gifts and evergreens. Then in the 1870s the public was fascinated by the toy trains in the windows of L.P. Tibbals’ toy store.

2) Macy’s took decorating up a notch in 1874, when it displayed $10,000 worth of dolls, effectively setting the window-watching trend—and the annual “What if my toy is sold out?” panic.

3) In 2010 Bergdorf spent nearly $300,000 on real antiques and quartz crystal bling for its windows, themed “Wish You Were Here.”

About the author

Suzanne Russo

About the author: Suzanne Russo thinks of herself as equal parts California Girl and New Yorker. She moved from San Francisco to New York four years ago to pursue her MA in English, and her obsession with all things New York life and history hasn’t dwindled yet. She is a freelance writer, director of the San Francisco-sponsored, New York literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl, and constant wanderer.

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