Jason Cochran
December 13, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Klieg lights tickle late-autumn clouds above Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. On the street, in front of the Lord & Taylor department store, a children’s choir finishes ”Silver Bells.” With a flourish, window shades rise on several ingenious pastel-warm tableaux of teddy bears and Santa Claus.

From couples on sentimental strolling dates to families together on a no-TV night, millions will be traveling to the old downtown streets of the cities this season for one of America’s favorite holiday traditions: window-shopping. It’s a kind of street theater — as elaborately engineered and costly as a big-ticket show — that, for a few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, invigorates the cities in a consumer-culture celebration of glitz, nostalgia, and merchandising.

”The Three Wise Men probably window-shopped to find the best frankincense and myrrh,” says writer Paul Rudnick. ”Browsing will be an American tradition as long as Wal-Mart is open.”

Around the country this season, stores are dressing in holiday style:

— Raised to the street by hydraulics, the Lord & Taylor displays are an 82-year institution. ”These are our gift to New York,” says creative director Manoel Renha.

— Windows at New York’s Sony Style boutique on Madison Avenue star characters from Where the Wild Things Are. ”There’s no merchandising,” says author Maurice Sendak. ”Max and the monsters take over Christmas.”

— Chicago poured $24.5 million into refurbishing historic State Street for holiday shopping, with replicas of 1920s streetlights and ornate subway kiosks.

— Atlanta’s up-and-coming Virginia-Highland district features chic cafes, boutiques — even the occasional caroling beer crawl.

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