In New York City, Macy’s holiday window displays and the admiring crowds they draw are a staple of the Christmas season. But for the last couple of years, the windows of the chain’s flagship have celebrated something besides Christmas that’s more unexpected: the New York Public Library (NYPL).
The NYPL appears in the “Yes, Virginia” series of windows, something which may perplex those who’ve only read the 1897 letter to the New York Sun and its famous reply. What does it have to do with the library?
The Library Joins the Story
The answer lies in the 2009 Yes, Virginia televised Christmas special, developed for Macy’s by Matt MacDonald of marketing firm JWT. Writing a letter and getting a response doesn’t take much time or offer many plot twists, so some flesh had to be added to the bones of the story—and that included a visit to the NYPL.
Once Virginia arrives at the library, an enthusiastic librarian helps Virginia learn all about the different version of Santa Claus from different countries. And though the library can’t directly tell Virginia whether Santa is real, it is indirectly responsible for the answer she finally gets, because it is seeing the Sun newspaper at the library that inspires her to write to the editor and ask.
MacDonald told LJ, “The librarian was inspired by the writer’s own mother—who was a librarian her entire life. We wanted Virginia to be a smart, self-starting, independent little girl. So naturally, when she sets out to prove the existence of Santa Claus, she went to the 19th century version of Google—the New York City Public Library… When putting together our take on this story, we asked ourselves what we’d do in that situation. Going the library seemed like the obvious first step.”
Research and Creativity
The library in the special has a healthy dose of imagination, but it is rooted in the real NYPL of yesterday and today as well. “We did a great deal of research when putting together the story—the grand Fifth Avenue library was under construction at the time Virginia wrote her famous letter. We chose to show the completed library, thinking it would be more beautiful than a pile of stone underneath scaffolding,” MacDonald told LJ.
Brian Howard, who designed the “Yes, Virginia” windows, told LJ, “We looked at the movie a lot, but we looked at the real NYPL too. Because there is a really good chance that people who come [to see the windows] will never have seen the movie, but they might have taken a tour of New York [and seen the Schwarzman Building]. So we have to strike a balance.” One of the biggest imaginative departures is the centerpiece of the window display: the librarian circling a round reading room (which the NYPL main branch doesn’t actually have) on a rolling ladder.
The sight is made all the more impressive if you realize that the display, like all the “Yes, Virginia” windows, is made out of a most library-suitable material: paper. (Though the figures are sculpted foam, and Howard said sturdier materials underneath the craft paper are necessary to support the weight of the rotating figure.) The design process took almost six months, and Howard says that as magical as the windows may look from the outside, from behind the scenes they’re supported by a lot of technology—much like today’s libraries. “It’s actually really loud back there,” said Howard.
Macy’s director of windows Paul Olszewski said in a statement, “Through the years, Macy’s has tested the boundaries of the imagination, interpreting the magic of the holiday season in many forms…. This year we wanted to celebrate our own city and what a magical place it is during the holidays.” Olszewski was primarily referring to the store’s Broadway windows, which this year include iconic city scenes from the construction of the Chrysler building to the Rockettes to Macy’s own Thanksgiving parade, but his remark is apropos for the “Yes, Virginia” windows, and particularly the depiction of the library, as well.
Reaching the Audience
It seems the window library’s mix of fiction and non-fiction is a hit: after the windows debuted on November 15, Howard conducted some field research, spending several hours watching visitors to the windows as they, in turn, watched the moving figures behind the glass. He said, “It seemed like that [the library] was everyone’s favorite.” For those who haven’t seen it yet, the librarian will continue to spin around her paper stacks through January 2.
NYPL is enjoying its place in the winter wonderland. “The Library is very excited to be part of the iconic ‘Yes, Virginia’ story, and by extension this year’s beautiful Macy’s windows, which will be seen by countless New Yorkers during the holiday season,” Angela Montefinise, NYPL director of public relations and marketing, told LJ. “We appreciate that Macy’s, a fellow New York institution, included us in their tradition. We’re also very happy that Virginia thought to visit us when she needed information, and hope others do the same!”
That message will spread even further than New York (and the small screen) this year: MacDonald told LJ that Macy’s has adapted the special into a play and offered it for free to every school and theater group nationwide. “This Christmas, more than 100 schools will be putting on the show,” said MacDonald. “And yes, Miriam the librarian has a big role.” In fact, she’s the narrator.