One thing is missing from New York City this holiday season: the crowds

It’s Christmas time again in the city, but nothing has been normal this year, including the annual holiday window displays at Midtown’s biggest retailers

Rockefeller Center. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Department store window displays are an integral part of the holiday season in cities all across the country. It’s Christmastime again in New York City—but this year, COVID-19 has been reshaping the ways in which we celebrate. Although it’s no longer the epicenter of the pandemic, the effects of restrictions put in place in mid-March are still rippling through New York’s once-busy city sidewalks. 

To love New York has always required a sometimes illogical embrace of contrasts. For the past seven years, I’ve begrudgingly fought the crushing holiday hordes to take a selfie with the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree; I’ve dutifully joined long lines snaking around Saks Fifth Avenue to marvel at their sartorial scenes; and I’ve waited patiently with my camera at the ready for a split-second of empty sidewalk outside of Bergdorf Goodman that rarely comes.  

While tales of New York transforming almost overnight into a ghost town are largely exaggerated, in mid-December, the lack of tourists is most stark along Fifth Avenue from the southern border of Central Park to Rockefeller Center. In a normal year, the 10-block stretch south of 59th Street is so packed with people that police officers erect barricades and direct foot traffic. This year, the barricades are back—but the crowds are not. 

Despite being located safely behind panes of glass, the mannequins within store window displays (and the people passing) wear face masks. Dressed in holiday style, they’re illuminated by strings of street lights and stop lights, blinking a bright red and green. But this year, the pared down displays and wide expanses of glass reflect back a grim reality. The city is very much still in mourning but there is a twinkling light at the end of the Lincoln Tunnel—or rather, thousands of them.

Broadway may be dark until at least the summer of 2021, but at Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorfs, and Saks, the show goes on—without glossing over the myriad challenges thrust upon the city in 2020. In the front windows of Saks’ flagship store, socially-distanced figures play music while perched atop taxis and holiday dinner is served outside from a food truck; the bling at Bloomingdale’s comes in the form of a bedazzled face mask; and Bergdorfs chose to forgo its signature elaborate tableaux for graphic typographic treatments. In place of haute couture, each window features a word crafted in reflective jewel tones: hope, love, harmony, joy, peace, equality, kindness, and unity—things we could all use more of in 2021.

Bloomingdale's “Give a Smile” window features a spinning emoji-inspired disco ball and bedazzled face masks.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Bloomingdale’s flagship store is located at E 59th Street and Lexington Avenue. This year’s theme is “Give Happy,” and the “Give a Smile” window features a spinning emoji-inspired disco ball and bedazzled face masks.

Perched atop taxis in Times Square, two musicians make music. A title on the window declares, “No jazz club, no problem. We’ll just take our music to the streets.”
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The windows at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store feature scenes of joy amid the ongoing pandemic. Perched atop taxis in Times Square, two musicians make music. A title on the window declares, “No jazz club, no problem. We’ll just take our music to the streets.” 

Bergdorf Goodman displays simple graphic messages of hope.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

In a departure from its traditionally elaborate windows, Bergdorf Goodman, located across the street from the Plaza Hotel on 58th Street and Fifth Avenue, displays simple graphic messages of hope.

At Bloomingdale’s, a wreath made of green teddy bears encircles a monochromatic mannequin outfitted in her holiday best.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

At Bloomingdale’s, a wreath made of green teddy bears encircles a monochromatic mannequin outfitted in her holiday best.

The area around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is almost eerily quiet.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

In a normal year, the area around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree would be teeming with tourists. On a Monday afternoon in mid-December, it’s almost eerily quiet.

Bloomingdale's brings the bling with a bracelet dripping in jewels.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Despite the pared down nature of some of the windows, Bloomingdale’s still brings the bling with a bracelet dripping in jewels.

An oversized, glittery dog gets festive in one of the color-coordinated Bloomingdale’s displays.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

An oversized, glittery dog gets festive in one of the color-coordinated Bloomingdale’s displays.

A Saks window pays tribute to the elaborate lights displays in the south Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A Saks window pays tribute to the elaborate lights displays in the south Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights.

At Saks, holiday dinner is served outdoors from a food truck.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

At Saks, holiday dinner is served outdoors from a food truck.

The bronze statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center follows the CDC guidelines and wears a face covering.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The bronze statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center follows the CDC guidelines and wears a face covering.

A stuffed dog in one of the windows at Saks looks forward to the New Year.
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A stuffed dog in one of the windows at Saks looks forward to the New Year.

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