Long ago, before anybody had even dreamed of the internet, people did their holiday shopping in a charmingly analog way: by scoping out gifts in store windows. Then, in 1883, the smart folks at the Macy's department store in New York City realized that they could draw even more people to their store windows by putting on a show. The first Macy's Christmas display, which featured a mechanical Santa's sleigh pulled by reindeer, drew fascinated crowds, and a holiday tradition was born.
This rendering from Collectors Weekly depicts crowds admiring a Christmas display at Macy's in 1884, one year after they created their original window display.
The idea was quickly picked up by other department stores. This Art Deco-inspired toy display, spotted on Collectors Weekly, was created by Chicago's Marshall Field's department store in 1928.
The Sears department store in Chicago (image found via Architecture Chicago), showing the elaborate holiday window displays on the lower level.
Fanciful Christmas window displays weren't just for toy stores or department stores. All kind of businesses got in on the action, including the Oldsmobile company in Washington, D.C., which created this 1922 window spotted on Collectors Weekly.
This 1938 window from the Dayton's department store in Minneapolis, and spotted on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society, features a life-sized Santa going about his work.
This 1940s toy display, at the Household Outfitting Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is a find from the fascinating Scranton Christmas Windows blog. Even stores in smaller towns got in on the craze.
This 1950s "Christmas Circus" display at the Lazarus department store in Columbus, Ohio, drew crowds reminiscent of the ones at the late 19th century Macy's window. From Ohio History, via Collectors Weekly.
This model train display from the Scranton Christmas Windows blog has been updated with a space-age theme.
In most American cities, the Christmas window display is now a thing of the past, a victim of the death of America's downtowns, and also of the department store itself. But the tradition lives on in New York City, where the windows are more of a spectacle than an inducement to buy anything in particular. The 2016 windows at Bergdorf Goodman (shown above) featured a "Destination Extraordinary" theme.
This incredibly detailed Snow White window is from this year's display at Saks Fifth Avenue. If you live in the city, or just happen to be visiting, check out a few of this year's offerings. You'll be participating in a long and beloved holiday tradition.
For Further Reading: Losing Ourselves in Holiday Windows from Collector's Weekly