Robin Givhan on holiday windows, wish lists and the beauty of crass consumerism

The windows of New York's Bergdorf Goodman show a fantastical travel scene inspired by the Victorian era
The windows of New York's Bergdorf Goodman show a fantastical travel scene inspired by the Victorian era (Bergdorf Goodman)
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By Robin Givhan
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:27 AM

As holiday displays go, the Macy's windows on G Street NW are modest. They tell the story of Virginia O'Hanlon, the little girl who famously wrote to the New York Sun in 1897 asking whether Santa Claus existed. The paper published an editorial assuring her that he most certainly did.

But of the sprinkling of passersby on a cold weekday afternoon, few of them were giving the animated paper cutouts depicting the Christmas tale more than a glance.

Washington is not a city where retailers spend an inordinate amount of time and money playing to foot traffic with jaw-dropping window displays. The best that folks typically can expect during the holidays is for shopkeepers to toss a bit of tinsel over the merchandise and perhaps drape a length of fresh pine swag around their doors.

Yet in this blessed season of giving and sharing - one that has been lacquered in Hallmark sentiment, dutiful socializing and self-conscious moralizing - this all-business reserve is vaguely reassuring.

In New York, holiday windows are a form of free public entertainment. But the store windows in the District have little in common with the bacchanal of retro glamour and sci-fi futurism that strains against the vitrines of New York's Bergdorf Goodman. They can't compare to the dazzling display of papier-mache food personalities that maintains Barneys New York's reputation as a mecca of holiday kitsch.

The Macy's windows, whose theme trickled down from corporate headquarters, occupy a subdued middle ground. If one takes the time to pause and inspect the windows with their dizzying, funhouse perspective, there are charming details and winsome characters that move to and fro. But the windows do not mesmerize, mystify or make one's eyes go wide in awe. They don't transport one to a place of sugar plum fairies and snow globe romance.

But that's okay. There's merchandise to move. And within the web of holiday sales, discounts and coupons, the retailer's windows are part of a clear mission: Stores must provide the stuff on the wish list.

Is a wish list really so bad?

It's become common practice to malign the seasonal emphasis on gift-giving. And indeed, there is something deeply off-putting and even shameful about shoppers who choose to eat their Thanksgiving dinner from a Tupperware container while huddled on the sidewalk waiting to get the doorbusters at Best Buy rather than in the warmth and bosom of friends and family. (Can any family be so dysfunctional as to make eating on the cold street more desirable than the few hours of petty recriminations that inevitably go along with the sweet potatoes and turkey? )

And clearly, there is no defending the impetus to go out and spend money that one doesn't have.

But fashion understands the importance of the wish list like few other industries. Throughout the year, Seventh Avenue expends its energy weaving complicated fantasies and extolling the magical virtues of its products. A certain dress can transform a woman into a sex goddess. A particular style of handbag will lend her social prominence. A hard-to-come-by brand of watch signifies a man's status as a master of the universe.

Wise adults know that it takes far more than a fine pair of earrings to transform a life. But there are also flecks of truth in those fantasies. And those truths become particularly evident and problematic at this time of the year.

Our things - keepsakes or junk - can have profound meaning. The wish list is not just about the sweaters and handbags, but also what they represent: values that are both negative and positive.

Parents may realize how deeply a teenager's self-esteem is invested in a particular brand of jeans or a T-shirt with a specific logo. Spouses may be startled to learn that the depths of their affection are measured by the cost of a present - or the number of carats in it - rather than the sentiment that guided the purchase.

People are aggravated by the importance placed on gift-giving because so often the wrong gift reveals some crack or even fissure in a relationship. People stress over shopping because they innately understand that there are some recipients who will never be satisfied, for the prestige, confidence or attention they seek can never be found in a fur coat or a piece of jewelry.

But every now and then, the wish list does a little good. Sometimes, a few yards of fabric can indeed be transformative. It can give someone a nudge towards self-assurance. Sometimes a timepiece, engraved with a few words of devotion, turns into a family totem. A serving bowl becomes a memento that speaks of a singularly blissful family meal.

Holidays are inherently defined by traditions. And those traditions are represented by things: the one-of-a-kind ornament, the special table linens, the teddy bear that turned into a frayed and lopsided security blanket.

Consumerism can be crass, but it can also provide us with a way to keep the past real, even hold on to a rare bit of childhood magic. The wish list, for all of its drawbacks, can be a fine addition to the holidays. Not because of all the things stuffed into the store windows, but because of all the memories they might come to represent.

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