Something illusory is happening beyond the usual facades of Christmas, involving a department store that no longer exists and a city that wishes it did. December can do this to you. It makes you long for what's not really there.

Ingrid Wnek, who worked the cosmetics counter for 39 years (until there was no cosmetics counter left to work at), first saw it on the television news Wednesday afternoon: The holiday windows at the old Woodward & Lothrop department store building at F and 11th streets NW have returned. (Back? From the dead of downtown?) How could this be, she wondered. She called Grace Dahl, who worked at Woodies for 45 years. "Are you seeing this?" she asked. "Is it true?"

"I see it, I see it," Dahl said. "We should get right down there."

"Let's go," Wnek said.

So they bundle themselves up elegantly, Wnek with a nice leopard-spotted fuzzy something around her neck, making sure to bring her Vivitar camera. They journey from the Maryland burbs back into the urban core, to this shabby but somehow still stately place. They stand in front of Woodies, amid thunderously idling Metrobuses and pounding pile drivers at a construction site across the street, near a Popeye's and boarded-up windows, with rap music wop-wopping from passing cars and street vendors selling "Let Go and Let God" T-shirts. A panhandler shuffles by and says he'll take credit cards and/or spare change.

Underneath the din you can hear a feminine voice reading over a loudspeaker.

It's "Beatrice Bear," perched in one of the display windows, moving its mechanical mouth and rolling its mechanical eyes, reading " 'Twas the night before Christmas" and urging all children to get library cards. Other teddy bears have gathered around Beatrice's Christmasy rocking chair. They are '90s bears, giving off the mass-market, animatronic whiff of Chuck E. Cheese.

Ingrid Wnek and Grace Dahl want to know what's behind the six Christmas window displays, fronting the cavernously empty store they once loved--the who-when, the how come. They have long since grieved the bankruptcy and shuttering of Woodward & Lothrop, which occupied the building for 108 years; both worked there through its last business day in 1995.

These are Christmas windows, all right, only with no store behind them, nothing backing them up--a Potemkin village trying to coax the downtownishness of it all back into downtown. (And turning the lights out by 8 p.m.--urban renewal still tucks itself in pretty early.) In the optimistic way cities everywhere are trying--by pluck and by tax dollar--to lure actual pedestrians back to the sidewalks, it has come to this. What would have once been a finishing detail (a window display) is now the attraction itself. It is at once ghostly and pretty and more pretend than the original winter-wonderland pretend game.

A tall man wearing a fleece jacket, who looks a little like the Cigarette-Smoking Man from "The X-Files" (and is, in fact, smoking a cigarette), calls out to Ingrid Wnek:

"Hello there, lady."

She turns and her eyes widen: "It's you!" she says, and they hug. "Did you do these?" she asks him, pointing to the windows. "I immediately thought of you when I saw it all."

"I didn't," says the man. He is Roland Leimbach, who worked for Woodies for 41 years--many of those years as the director of "visual marketing," the mastermind of the department store's windows up through the 1970s, until it was deemed unjustifiably expensive to do Christmas windows, when it felt like no one was looking through the glass anymore.

"I'm like you. I just wanted to come down here and see them for myself," Leimbach says. "I wasn't expecting much, but I have to say they look pretty good." They're very simple, he notes, studying them. See how these penguins' arms move in the "Penguin Village"? "That's pretty elementary stuff, there," he says. "Still, it's nice to see it. Maybe people will come."

When the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID) decided, almost too late, to bring Christmas windows back to Woodies this year, there was the problem of who even does Christmas windows in these times, when department stores are nowhere near sidewalks.

Except for the big, big stores in New York and Chicago (which are impervious), the well-done window display that doesn't involve merchandise and Tommy Hilfiger logos is another of those lost arts. In this, the age of Ann Taylor bus-stop posters and the blank, towering stares of Aberzombie androgynes, you have to go all the way to North Carolina to hire a windowmaker: BID contracted with a Charlotte company called Media Advertising & Design to do Woodies' "new" windows. The company usually decorates suburban shopping malls.

Seamus Houston, BID's marketing director, flew to Charlotte in October with ideas for half a dozen windows in the Woodies building; Paul Lawrence at Media Advertising & Design thought the schedule was too tight--six weeks for six windows?--but agreed to take on the task. Lawrence began ordering "raw" mechanical animals and figures and decorations. A crew has worked since Thanksgiving in the shell of the Woodies building to finish assembling the displays for last week's opening. In the building's west half, the grand old columns remain; the gutted east half is currently being used to process and interview needy clients for Salvation Army charities, adding a Dickensian air.

"It's all been sort of an experiment," Houston said, while Windexing the department store's windows top to bottom before the opening. "I don't know if this will attract people or not. But we thought it was worth trying."

There is a real estate developer and urban optimist's science to getting Americans to come back downtown: It has to feel sentimental on the outside, but also smell and look brand-new on the inside. Like ballparks now. Like restaurants done diner-style.

Also it takes money. BID levies an additional property tax on owners within its target zone around the MCI Center, an area bordered by Massachusetts and Constitution avenues, Interstate 395, and 15th and 16th streets astride H Street NW. In the renewed urbanistic thinking, the best use for an old movie theater is often as a retail megastore, because a movie theater today has to have a couple dozen screens and stadium seating to be a going venture. (Such a megaplex is planned around the corner from F and 11th.) Sometimes the only answer is Mickey Mouse. It wasn't New York that "rescued" Times Square, it was Disney. It's not about love so much as it's about retail.

Windows were used to lure shoppers. Woodies' current windows work as nothing more than "a gift to the city," says BID spokesman Marc Goldman, which is why he declines to cite the project's price tag. "You're not supposed to ask how much a gift costs," he replies. (Leimbach says in the '70s, Woodies would usually budget around $200,000 to do its holiday windows; it could be more now, he muses, looking at the "Georgetown parlor" window of children and adults decorating a tree. Then again, maybe these windows are efficient enough to cost less, he adds.)

The Woodward & Lothrop building is owned by developer Douglas Jemal, a 57-year-old Brooklyn native who once owned Nobody Beats the Wiz music stores in New York, and now owns a sizable portion of downtown's remaining real estate treasures--around 1.5 million square feet of potential retail and business space.

Jemal acquired the old Woodies this spring for $28.5 million; the building had protracted courtships with other grand plans since 1995, as a possible downtown opera house or as a Smithsonian archive. Bickering has continued over its potential as condo space, or as a mix of offices and retail. Jemal continues gutting the old Woodies as its fate plays out.

As a way of getting people to remember the building and also, say, the 1950s (when traffic lanes used to be blocked while shoppers lined up to look at the holiday displays after Thanksgiving), Jemal insisted that the windows be brought back, somehow. "I just want to see people talking to one another on the street again," he says. "All these urban planners with downtown plans can do a number of things, but you've got to just get people on the street, walking, talking." He even contributed a 150-year-old wicker horse sleigh as a centerpiece for the double-width window on the corner. "I love that thing. I found it 20 or 25 years ago in an antique store in York, Pennsylvania. . . . It sat in storage for 20 years." (Rosebud, anyone?)

Forty years ago, department store window displays were orchestrated by a bunch of fellows in-house, such as Roland Leimbach, who busied themselves on the higher floors of the downtown fortresses, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and their shirt sleeves rolled up, holding T squares, testing mock-ups built to scale.

"I really enjoyed doing it," Leimbach says, thinking back. "One year we did all cats and cat themes and characters." He has brought along a thick, hardback book, "Creative Display," written in 1965 by his former boss at Woodies, George K. Payne. "He was the pioneer," Leimbach says. "I started out in 1955 as a helper and worked my way up. I'd thought I'd only stay a few months and wound up being here almost 41 years. When [Payne] left, I took over."

Back then, the guys in visual marketing began thinking Xmas as early as March. The Hecht Co. didn't know what Woodies was doing, and Woodies didn't know what Lansburgh's was doing and Garfinckel's didn't know what Hecht's was doing, but they were all too busy to spy on one another.

What was known was that hundreds and hundreds of people would be passing by and shopping as a matter of course, nothing retro about it. The windowmakers knew where to find the exact kind of blue lights to shine on Bethlehem, or where to find live penguins. All of it was done with the notion that this year would be better than last year. All they were doing was constructing new themes out of an old one, which was Christmas.

What was in the windows never reflected reality, because Christmas is a fantasy of the heart, and it is co-dependent on retail. In the ongoing rediscovery of the now oddly old-fashioned notions of city, perhaps someday people will shop here again. But the trend this year is to take Christmas even farther away, beyond the suburbs, to the no place of the Internet: The dominant Christmas window is Windows, point-and-click, dotcom, a million sugarplum electrons.

"Wouldn't it just be so nice," Ingrid Wnek says, the afternoon light starting to fade and the twinkling ideas seeming brighter in the Woodies windows, as the commuters make dashes for the Metro stops, "if they could get a store in here?"

For the moment, she settles for the simple apparitions of old friends.

The Christmas windows at the Woodward & Lothrop building are lighted every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the corner of F and 11th streets NW, through Jan. 6.