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“People call this Santa’s workshop,” says Sandra Spaeth as she welcomes me inside Spaeth Design, a Queens, N.Y.-based company that specializes in making holiday window displays. Under a red sign that says “Wonder Factory,” a woman is sawing off the edges of a large plastic crystal that will be part of a North Pole scene. A few feet away, a man carves panels for a computer that processes all the letters Santa gets from children around the world.

It’s the middle of October, and Denis Frenette, senior vice-president, merchandise presentation, at Hudson’s Bay, is on hand to make sure this year’s holiday windows are going according to plan. The holiday windows at the Queen Street location in Toronto are one of the company’s biggest projects of the year, and one of its longest-standing traditions, going back to 1914. The pressure to wow crowds, who flock to the store by the thousands each year, is intense. “It’s really about delivering an experience to the customer,” Frenette says.

On Queen Street in Toronto in 1961, crowds gathered at the old Simpsons department store for a glimpse at the annual Christmas window display. The tradition continues at the same location today, where it’s now the Bay seeking to attract customers to its windows.

HBC Corporate Collection

Although Frenette wouldn’t tell me how much the windows cost, it can’t be cheap. A team of more than 60 people from Hudson’s Bay and Spaeth Design have spent at least 30,000 hours planning, designing and creating them since February.

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Holiday windows have been major event for retailers since Macy’s New York store unveiled scenes from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1874. Stores have been upping the ante ever since. Later this month, for example, Saks will unveil its holiday windows at its store on Fifth Avenue in New York, inspired by Frozen 2, with a performance by Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa in the blockbuster movie, and a 10-storey-tall light show.

Holiday sales make up nearly 20 per cent of annual retail sales, according to the U.S.-based National Retail Federation, so it’s no wonder retailers go big with their holiday windows. But for the people who come from Toronto and farther afield – Tourism Toronto lists the Hudson’s Bay windows as one of the city’s top holiday attractions – to marvel at the display, the windows are about more than shopping. “It’s that nostalgia kind of feeling for the holidays,” Frenette says. “People want to reconnect.”

Crowds flock to them for a sense of community at a time of the year when we especially yearn for togetherness. But they also want a great picture to post on their social-media feeds, a fact that now strongly influences the design of the displays.

This year, one of five holiday windows by Hudson’s Bay, all inspired by the theme of Santa’s workshop, will feature robots sorting presents that roll by on a conveyor belt. When visitors touch their hands to the glass a robot will reach out and give them a high five – a feature specifically designed for the Instagram age.


In photos: A peek into the planning of a Christmas window display at Hudson’s Bay

Roya Sullivan, Macy’s national director of window presentation, says that she and her team began thinking of ways to make their store’s windows more social-media-friendly three years ago.

This year, three of the windows at the retailer’s 34th Street location in New York will feature interactive elements. Children will be able to use a steering wheel to drive a toy truck from the outside. In another window, people will be able to touch the glass in front of a dog’s nose on the other side of the window and the pooch’s legs will move up and down scratching itself. Most importantly, at least so far as getting likes goes, one interactive element will make a photo of visitors appear in the window wearing a Santa hat. “And then you’ll be able to step back and take a picture of yourself,” Sullivan says.

Elements such as these are crucial at a time when it is much easier for people to stay home and do their holiday shopping online rather than trek to a store, says Anne King, program co-ordinator for visual presentation and exhibition design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York. “If someone is not going to sit down and order something online and they’re going to take themselves to the brick and mortar store there has to be more there, there has to be an experience,” she says.

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The experience of going to see holiday windows is hard to pin down exactly. In a way, they are Instagram before there was Instagram – the thing we all want to go see because it’s the thing we all want to go see. But the same could be said for visiting the Eiffel Tower or any of the other famous sites that regularly appear on the app.

What makes the displays special is that with their usually retro aesthetics – the animatronic figures, toy soldiers, shiny ornaments and smiling snowmen – they make us feel that sense of wonder about the holidays we felt as children, when the magic of the season was as real and exciting as presents under a tree.

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