Holiday decorations on Fifth Avenue

Sean is lucky enough to have virtual door-to-door subway service from home to work, but I have a good ten-minute walk from my Fifth Avenue subway stop to my office seven blocks farther downtown. It’s an easy stroll—or it would be if tourists weren’t constantly glutting the sidewalk. They amble when I’m trying to make quick strides and stop for photos when I want to hurry ahead. When I’m late for work or desperate to return home, I fume that they’re nothing but a nuisance, but in my heart, I know that’s not so. By their very presence, the hordes of tourists remind me to take the time to appreciate my surroundings, and at this time of year in particular, that reminder is a blessing.

Fifth Avenue is absolutely beautiful during the holiday season. The tiered fountain across the street from the Apple store is drained and packed with a small forest of fairy-lit pine trees. The enormous crystalline snowflake is hung once again over the Fifty-seventh Street intersection. And, best of all, the ritzy shops and department stores create their most beautiful, opulent windows of the year.

Last year my favorites were the small, picture-box windows at Tiffany’s, but this year I’ve been crossing the street to marvel at the Bergdorf windows. Normally such gilt bores me, but the Fifth Avenue Bergdorf windows are so exuberant, so unabashed, so hedonistic in their extravagance that I can’t stop staring at them, dazzled and happy.

They aren’t holiday windows, exactly. Inspired by the lavish style of the late designer Tony Duquette, the five soaring dreamscapes each embody an “element”: earth, air, fire, water, and light. In “Water,” for example, an alabaster woman anchors a surreal, sparkling tableau of coral, seashells, and starfish. In “Air,” a maharani, robed in a gold and feathers, rides atop a floating bejeweled elephant before a moonlit sky. The windows don’t seem to have any purpose or any particular meaning; they exist simply to be beautiful.

We always hear about how Christmas has become far too commercial, and it has, of course. These windows (despite their complete lack of holiday content) would probably be considered a good example of that profligacy. Yet paradoxically, they don’t strike me that way. Intellectually, I know the windows cultivate the image Bergdorf wants to propagate—they further the Bergdorf Goodman brand—but looking at them, I’m not inspired to buy anything. Of course, I couldn’t afford much of anything at Bergdorf anyway, but that’s beside the point: the windows don’t put much effort into showcasing the store’s wares.

Rather than making me feel acquisitive or covetous, the windows make me feel only wonder. It’s an earthly sense of wonder—a delight in human ingenuity and human artistry—but surely that’s a few steps closer to “true Christmas spirit” than I was before. Gazing at the windows, I’m not thinking about my bank balance or my wish list or my shopping list. Those concerns melt away, and I’m content, blissfully happy with where I am. I stop to smell the street vendor’s roasting cashews. I stop to savor the falling snowflakes. I stop and smile and breathe.