Christmas Magic in Department Store Windows

Filene's Christmas Tree, holiday decorations, displays

Filene’s Christmas Tree

Time changes everything and it seems the world of retail sales has changed faster than most. Department stores stole business from specialty shops, malls wiped out downtown centers, and online shopping took over everything.

We notice these changes particularly around Christmas when shopping becomes a competitive sport. Some of the differences are good. No one misses traffic jams on the road to the mall, slogging along cold slushy sidewalks, or fighting for a parking spot.

Holiday Windows

But I do miss department store windows at Christmas. Long before we had fantasy movies with super-realistic CGI; Christmas displays gave us a window into a 3-D fantasy world. Shopping downtown and looking at the department store windows was a rite of the holiday season.

Where I grew up, there was only one department store. While Cherry & Webb decorated its holiday windows nicely, they couldn’t hold a candle to the big ones in Boston, much less Fifth Avenue in New York City. If we were lucky, our parents took us on a special holiday trip to Boston.

Views into Other Worlds

Filene's, department store window, Christmas display, Boston

Filene’s Christmas window

Here’s the thing: these department store windows gave us dioramas with views into other worlds: Santa’s workshop, skaters on a pond at night, families sitting by the fire, ballerinas twirling amid frosty trees, and snowy woodland scenes were some of the themes.

You would walk along the sidewalk through the crowds and the frosty winter air and push past the grownups to peer into each window as if the real thing was just inches away from your nose.

Because the figures didn’t just stand there; they moved! Your eyes widened as you watched the animated people and animals go through their routines. For little kids, this was a magical experience. Even better: Anyone in the city of Boston could come and share this experience for nothing. Whether you walked, took the T or drove, you could marvel at the department store windows.

The displays continued above our heads, with a full-size manger scene over the door to Jordan Marsh and a forest of lit Christmas trees lighting up the entrance to Filene’s.

The Enchanted Village of St. Nicholas

If your parents were willing to brave the crowds, you could also go to the seventh floor at Jordan Marsh and walk through The Enchanted Village of St. Nicholas. The village was like the windows, but bigger and better, because you were actually inside it. The Enchanted Village surrounded you with an entire nineteenth-century town of nearly life-size people going about their Christmas activities. You could peek into their houses while they decorated trees, wrapped presents, sang carols, baked treats and welcomed guests. What a thrill!

Where Have They Gone?

Now, instead of Jordan Marsh and Filene’s we have Macy’s and the two long stretches of display windows on Washington Street have shrunk to just one. They’re pretty, I’m sure, but the experience can’t be the same. The Enchanted Village still exists, thankfully, but it has moved from the now-defunct Jordan Marsh in Boston’s Downtown Crossing south to Jordan’s Furniture in Avon.

Enchanted Village of St Nicholas, Jordan Marsh, Christmas, department store windows, dioramas

The Enchanted Village of St. Nicholas at Jordan Marsh

A big thanks to the Tatelman brothers, Barry and Eliot, for rescuing this treasure, refurbishing it and making it available free to children whose parents have cars. Other city kids, the ones who walked or took the T, can’t get all the way to Avon, though, the way they could make it to Downtown Crossing. That’s too bad.

Malls and Online Shopping Don’t Hold a Candle

When malls first came on the scene, they tried to duplicate the windows. They gave us pretty decorations and Santa on a throne. For a long wait and a small fortune, you could get a picture of your child sitting on Santa’s lap. That’s not even close to windows full of magic.

Now the malls, too, have declined. Many still exist and are decorated for Christmas but it’s a pretty sterile experience. A sad Mall Santa takes the place of holiday scenes and animated figures — and even some of them are being replaced with internet “experiences.” Online shopping may offer speed and convenience, but it can’t even come close to the magic that department store windows once provided. Instead of a special trip to show your kids something wonderful, you can sit at your desk and click Purchase. Zowie.

The Christmas Markets

Christmas market, Paris, marche de noel, Christkindlmarkts, Viking River Cruises

Chalet at the Marche de Noel

The closest I have come to duplicating the experience of department store windows is the Christmas Market in Paris. There I found the crowds and the cold air and a few Christmas decorations that approximated what I had seen in department store windows. I presume the Christmas Markets in other parts of Europe, particularly Germany, are even better.

Where do children find Christmas magic these days? Probably at the movies, with CGI characters and talking animals. But sitting in the dark and passively watching manufactured entertainment on a screen can’t hold a candle to actually pressing your face to the glass to get a better look at Santa’s workshop.

Things change and technology marches on., but it’s not always better.

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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