Giving You Christmas When You Want It

By Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York and the author of Confessions of a Window Dresser (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 02/12/07):

“Is it that time already?” “Every year it gets earlier!” “Please! No tinsel! Not before December!” These are just some of the comments I overheard recently as passers-by saw me and my colleagues installing the holiday windows at the emporium of style and fashion where we work.

We are old hands at ignoring sidewalk commentary. We usually just carry on with our glue-gunning and our decoupage-ing. But this year the Greek chorus of surprise reached such a pitch that I feel compelled to respond and set the record straight. Brace yourselves. You may be shocked by what I am about to tell you.

Holiday promotions kick off at exactly the same time every year! Let me, a window dresser with more than 30 years of experience, assure you of the following: Dasher and Blitzen and Mrs. Claus and all the elves of the world have been working from the same notes, and the same schedule, for as long as we all can remember.

Here’s how the season unfolds: First come the holiday ornament shops. Some gauche folks unveil these bauble-filled boutiques right after Labor Day, but most opt for the middle of October. Next we have the interior decorations, the festooning of which takes place around Halloween at some Manhattan department stores. Others, demonstrating a certain chic restraint, usually wait until at least Nov. 2 or 3 before decking their halls.

Which leads us to my personal favorite: yes, it’s window time! The first two weeks of November, stores all over town, both trendy and otherwise, unveil their yuletide dioramas. Rare is the shopkeeper who makes his garland-toting elves wait till after Black Friday — that’s what our be-suited bosses call the day after Thanksgiving — before they can unfurl their tinsel.

Given the essential consistency of this schedule, why do the holidays come as such a shock? Why do otherwise sentient beings suffer from the delusion that staple-gun-wielding window dressers are advancing upon them with premature malevolence? In the past I chalked this up to good, old-fashioned denial: fending off the headache-inducing obligations and demands of the season is a fairly universal impulse.

But I am starting to wonder, based on the volume and intensity of this year’s every-year-it-gets-earlier shrieks, if there might be more to it. The perception that the holidays have been foisted on consumers too soon surely masks deeper concerns. The good citizens are worried that the spiritual aspect of the season is about to be devoured by an increasingly unbridled shopping culture.

These worries are not without foundation. Between the online shopping explosion, and the previously unimaginable proliferation of marketing and hipster retailing — is there a neighborhood of Manhattan left that has not been gentrified with nifty stores? — holiday consumerism has reached a deafening roar. If materialism and holiday cheer were to duke it out, which would win?

Fortunately for all concerned, this bout of ultimate fighting need never take place, because the spiritual and commercial aspects of the holidays are not mutually exclusive.

And that please-don’t-tell-me-it’s-tinsel-time moment only serves to reconcile the two forces. It allows each of those sidewalk critics to indulge in a Tiny Tim fantasy: for that particular moment, he or she is the only person on earth who grasps the true meaning of this highly commercialized holiday. And then, once that therapeutic hissy fit has dissipated, these good citizens are free to shop their brains out. It’s their way of having their Christmas cake and eating it, too.

More good news: the commercial aspect of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa is, in its own way, entirely meaningful. Retailers depend on people to buy mountains of gifts for their loved ones; the resulting fourth-quarter revenues ensure their very survival and create jobs. Additionally, gift buying is a legitimate feel-good pastime that involves empathy and creativity, connoisseurship and self-expression. A trip to SoHo or NoLIta can be every bit as visually stimulating and thought-provoking as a schlep around the Chelsea art galleries.

So stop trying to hold back the holidays. Relax! Get your kvetching and your spiritual psychotherapy out of the way and then surrender to the fun and distraction of the holidays. And yes, there will be damage to your wallet. But look on the bright side: the window displays are free.

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