- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

These days, early mornings at the new Macy’s downtown finds the maintenance crew working hard to erase some tiny smudges: a child’s handprints pressed against the glass of the windows that run along the store’s F Street facade.”It’s really the best compliment ever,” says Macy’s Metro Center visual director Andi Woung. “I love to come out here and see the kids up close to the windows looking in.”

Even grown-ups have been known to decelerate a bit on that stretch of F Street between 12th and 13th.

So what’s the cause of this change of pace? That would be Macy’s “Trees of Wonder,” a series of windows that bring a new take on the past to a newly grateful downtown. Here are Christmas trees in settings practically guaranteed to produce that old-time sense of awe: Lions lie down with lambs, dragons are fierce but friendly, and trees shine brightly under the deep blue sea.

Imagine an old-fashioned couple waltzing to the tune of an elf organist, a golden lion, and a spinning Christmas tree that hovers over a magically lit village of lights and snow, and you’ll have some notion of what’s captivating Washingtonians big and small this Christmas season.

Downtown’s wondrous trees are only part of the picture. From F Street to Georgetown, to Bethesda and beyond, holiday windows are back, if not with a vengeance, at least with a gentle tug at the heartstrings. And once you pause to check out the displays, you’ll find that there’s plenty more to do in the neighborhood to put you in the holiday mood.

Windows on downtown

For many Washingtonians, the new Macy’s windows conjure up memories of Christmas seasons long ago.

“We used to make a special trip just to see the windows,” says Barry Thornes, an Olney resident who grew up in the District in the 1950s and ‘60s. “My dad would drive us down, drop us off, and circle the block while we looked at the windows. It was the thing to do at Christmas.”

Downtown as a destination is precisely what Macy’s had in mind when it took over the Hecht’s store at 12th and F in September.

“We’re looking for ways for our windows to tie in with other events in a total downtown experience,” says acting store manager Douglas Horst.

Part marketing, part magic, the idea of Christmas “windows” began in earnest in the 1920s, when America’s downtown department stores sought to pull in customers ready to spend — and even to charge their purchases, a practice that became popular in that flush decade. Over the years, traditional themes were always popular, but could give way to special windows reflecting current events.

During World War II, for example, the Hecht Co. featured window displays of Christmas with American fighting forces at its downtown store at Seventh and F streets. In later years, the displays were mechanized: elves hammered, skaters spun and Santa nodded, all to the tune of a familiar carol or two.

Pride of place went to Woodward and Lothrop, the venerable family-owned business that sat squat in the middle of the shopping district at 11th and F. At “Woodies,” Christmas was geared toward every member of the family.

“Woodies was the big draw downtown,” says Ellen Parmes, a longtime Hecht’s employee now working at Macy’s, who remembers going downtown with her family in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “Every little nook and cranny had something going on at Christmas.”

Over the years, Woodward and Lothrop’s window displays changed weekly, and at times included trains, real penguins and even an Indian elephant in 1967, which unfortunately expired after just a couple of days in the window. No one is known to have complained at the time about cruelty to animals.

The fondest recollections always have something to do with the store’s Christmas windows.

“We always made a day of it,” says Rick Moorhead of Montgomery County, who spent his childhood Christmases looking in at Woodies windows and grew up to help install them. “We’d go look at windows, have lunch, and maybe go to the movies at one of the big theaters.”

Many people who went to see the windows never even made it into the store.

“Holiday windows really are a gift to the city. It’s not just about buying and selling,” says Sheryll Bellman, author of “Through the Shopping Glass: A Century of Christmas Windows in New York.”

But with bankruptcies, mergers, and the shift to the suburbs, downtown Christmas windows became a thing of the past in many areas.

“It was an art that was lost in a lot of cities,” says Mr. Woung. “Now Macy’s is trying to revitalize these spaces.”

That means making a seasonal lagniappe into something of an event to be savored, covering up windows and not revealing them until a special day — usually the day after Thanksgiving (as Macy’s did this year).

“People like doing that,” says Mr. Woung. “They like that sense of anticipation. After all, that’s what Christmas is about.”

Big Apple fantasies

The holiday fantasies filling the windows of Macy’s stores this year are the brainchild of Paul Olszewski, who was just awarded the coveted Platinum Award from Display and Design Ideas magazine for his holiday windows at Macy’s Herald Square, in New York City.

“We wanted to keep a real Christmas theme,” says Mr. Olszewski, who adapted the Herald Square windows for use in Washington. “It’s all about celebrating the season and having fun.”

New York is one place where the art of the Christmas window lives on despite changes in shopping patterns and styles. Over the years, artists including Robert Raschenberg and Jasper Johns have been responsible for some of the most cutting-edge designs around.

For Mr. Olszewski and his team, the fun begins nearly 12 months in advance, when the planning begins for the next season’s extravaganza.

After all, these are no ordinary display windows, but ones with computer-driven technology and ablaze with lights.

But long before fiber optics, Christmas windows were an important part of the New York experience.

“They take you back to a time when things seemed simpler,” says Ms. Bellman. “Or it can be a kind of fantasy world, or a window on a Broadway show.”

Today, windows in New York department stores range from traditional treatments like the ones at Macy’s and Lord and Taylor, to edgy, trend-setting statements like those associated with Bergdorf Goodman’s or Barney’s.

“You can stand for an hour or so in front of a New York window, there are so many different things to see,” says Ms. Bellman. “And it’s always interesting to see where the children stay the longest.”

Washington tradition

Of course, Washington is no New York, and D.C. Christmas displays have always tended to edge toward tradition rather than trend. But that doesn’t faze Mr. Woung, who will have plenty of time to try out his edgy designs the rest of the year.

“I was wandering around outside right after the unveiling and I heard someone say, “this reminds me of the old days of Woodies,” says Mr. Woung. “I was thrilled.”

Even after Woodward and Lothrop closed in 1995 the holiday window tradition lived on, revived by the Downtown Business Improvement District, which placed its own displays in the now-shuttered store and other downtown properties.

“We did it for three or four years,” says Karen Sibert, a Downtown BID spokeswoman. “There were many more vacant windows then, and we wanted to create a welcoming presence during the holiday season.”

Downtown BID now has set its sights on a new reason to come downtown during the holiday season: a holiday market, with more than 50 local artisans, live music and food.

Now in its second year, BID’s holiday market includes wooden clocks, handcrafted jewelry and handpoured candles. The live music includes jazz, folk, world music and R&B.

Neighborhood lights

When it comes to holiday sights, Georgetown has always been a destination. But these days, the lighted snowflakes on that neighborhood’s main streets are joined by a series of whimsical window displays along Book Hill, a stretch of Wisconsin Avenue between P and R streets, just below the Georgetown Public Library.

Picture “Winter Wonderland” at Urban Chic, or “Winery Winter” at Bacchus Wine Cellar, and you’ll have some idea of what’s in the windows of the eclectic, one-of-a-kind shops that line this stretch of street. The traditional is represented here as well, from the “12 Days of Christmas” at The Phoenix to “Nutcracker Christmas” at I.D.

Continue up Wisconsin Avenue, and you’ll eventually enter Bethesda.

This once small town now sports its own version of “trendy,” with chain stores like Apple and Barnes and Noble tucked between restaurants offering food from every corner of the globe.

Here, the space in front of the sprawling Barnes and Noble in the Woodmont Triangle district has become its own meeting place of sorts, as the walkers and bikers of the Capital Crescent Trail mix and mingle with weekend strollers and folks lining up for the day’s offerings at Bethesda Bagels.

For the past several years, the Bethesda Urban Partnership ran a window-decorating contest, but suspended its efforts this year.

“We just didn’t have the staff,” says spokeswoman Lauren DeGourse.

That hasn’t stopped longtime businesses like Color Me Mine and Chevy Chase Cars from offering their own window displays, even without the incentive of a prize and bragging rights.

“We’ve always done something,” says Sam Weaver Jr., vice-president of Chevy Chase Cars, which opened in 1939. “In past years we’ve had painted windows. This year we’ve got huge wreaths and extra large ornaments. It looks great at night.”

Here today

But take note. Wherever you are, holiday windows don’t last forever.

“Designers didn’t take many photos,” says Ms. Bellman, who combed through basements and archives for hours to find the photographs featured in her book.

Mr. Horst of Macy’s agrees.

“We’re always moving forward, working out the next theme,” he says. “We don’t really save too much from what we’ve already done.”

So unless you have some family pictures tucked away somewhere, those Christmas windows of memory may be all that remains of the glory days of holidays gone by.

Before you know it, that special Christmas window, with its magical elves, underwater delights and, of course, a spinning Christmas tree or two, will be gone as surely as that snowflake melts upon your sleeve.

Getting festive for Christmas

Looking to recapture your own piece of the Christ- mas season? You can see Macy’s holiday windows at its downtown store on F Street Northwest between 12th and 13th streets.

Also, the Downtown Business Improvement District’s Holiday Market is open daily from noon to 7 p.m. through tomorrow on F Street Northwest between Seventh and Eighth. Call 202/638-3232 or see www.downtowndc.org/holiday_market.

And to read more about the tradition of holiday windows, try these exercises in nostalgia:

• “Through the Shopping Glass: A Century of New York Christmas Windows”: By Sheryll Bellman and Simon Doonan (Rizzoli Universe Promotional Books, 2006, $12.98)

• “Growing Up in Washington, D.C.: An Oral History”: By the D. C. Historical Society of Washington for the Voices of America series, Jill Connors, editor (Arcadia Publishing, 2001, $29.99)

• “Christmas on State Street: 1940s and Beyond”: By Robert P. Ledermann for the Images of America: Illinois series (Arcadia Publishing, 2002, $24.99)

• “Hudson’s: Detroit’s Legendary Department Store”: By Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon for the Images of America series (Arcadia Publishing, 2004, $19.99)

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