One is a scene from the Christmas ballet “The Nutcracker,” a 3-foot tall Sugar Plum Fairy in a lace and rhinestone-studded dress, hand-sewn by costume designers in New York. Another is of Beacon Hill from a bygone era, with carolers in bonnets and top hats, while a more contemporary scene shows a clay-molded child spinning on his bottom at the frozen Frog Pond.
The holiday windows at Macy’s in Downtown Crossing are back. In an era where many shoppers click through their gift lists from the comfort of their couches, the window displays with handmade characters in traditional settings are a holiday rite that continues to bring thousands of people out to the department store.
“That’s the beauty and entertainment of these windows,” said Roya Sullivan, Macy’s national window director. “You can’t get that same feeling and emotion looking at something online. I don’t think that will ever go away.”
Festive holiday window displays, which will be revealed at Macy’s on Friday, are a more-than-a-century-old retail tradition. It started in New York as a marketing gimmick to lure shoppers to stores and quickly grew into a competition among the nation’s top department stores. Over time, the displays evolved from simple garland and Christmas trees to interactive screens with snowflakes that mimic body movements.
Macy’s singles out seven stores around the country where it tailors animated displays to each of those cities, including Boston, Sullivan said. Macy’s has used the same wooden sets in Boston for the last few years and adds new characters and details every year.
In addition to the scenes of the carolers, the Nutcracker, and Frog Pond, one window mirrors the Macy’s downtown tree-lighting ceremony.
The Boston windows, titled “The Magic of Christmas,” are classic scenes in both modern and historical settings. Almost everything is made by hand, and although relatively simple, the windows still require months of work from start to finish.
Macy’s eight-member windows team and its marketing division start planning the themes in January. Another team in Boston comes up with ideas that represent the city.
Spaeth Designs, an iconic window designer and builder in New York, then takes those ideas and spends about six months developing a presentation to show Macy’s. Spaeth has built sets for major department stores — Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s — over the last 60 years.
The firm’s president, Sandy Spaeth, said the whole process, from conceiving ideas to developing storyboards to building a real set, is similar to staging a Broadway show. The company’s 20,000-square-foot space resembles Santa’s workshop with set designers, costumers, wig makers, engineers, welders, carpenters, and artists who bring the windows to life.
“It’s a combination of high-craft with high-tech,” Spaeth said.
The wooden displays and clay characters arrive at the Macy’s stores three weeks before Black Friday. Catherine Costello, visual manager for the downtown store, said workers set up each window and then add Christmas trees and batting that looks like snow. They drill holes for lights in the sky of some scenes, creating the illusion of stars.
“The detail is where you get to play,” Costello said. “That’s the thing my team fights to do.”
The tradition of holiday windows dates to the 1870s, when R.H. Macy created one of the first holiday window displays at his 14th Street store in New York. Boston’s most memorable contribution to the tradition was introduced in the 1940s, when the Jordan Marsh department store created the Enchanted Village. The village, installed on an entire floor at Jordan Marsh, drew thousands of Bostonians over the years until it was taken down, first in 1972 and then again in the 1990s. It now survives at Jordan’s Furniture. Jordan Marsh stores gave way to the Macy’s name in 1996.
The window tradition lives on because of the shoppers it attracts: Millions visit the major department stores in New York every holiday season. Macy’s declined to say how much it spends on window displays.
Madison Riley, a retail analyst with Kurt Salmon in New York, said the expense is worth it for many retailers because the displays make the in-store experience stand out from online shopping.
“The experience of going shopping on a busy day over the holidays is still a fun and exciting thing to do,” he said. “Retailers do this because they recognize that part of their brand includes the scene and the event, the actual sights, sounds, and smells of being in a store. That’s still very important.”