Capturing the Holiday Spirit

For the millions of tourists who make a pilgrimage to midtown Manhattan every holiday season, the illuminated angels blowing their horns in Rockefeller Center seem divinely conceived, sent down from heaven to bring joy each year before returning to a lofty place in the sky. The truth is that these exalted creations originated in a far less celestial place: a 110,000-square-foot commercial building in Mount Vernon.

The Southern Westchester city happens to be where American Christmas, Inc.—which creates some of the most recognizable holiday displays across the world— relocated last summer. Each year during the holiday season, the company’s best-known work can be found at such frequently visited and photographed sites as Radio City Music Hall, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and the New York Palace hotel. This past season, the company added two more high-profile clients: Cartier and the New York Stock Exchange.

For American Christmas CEO Frederic Schwam, 44, Mount Vernon was an appealing location for his business after 22 years in the Bronx. “It is centrally located, with good proximity to the highways,” he says. “And with public transportation, all our employees can get to work easily and conveniently.” Familiarity also played a key role in the decision to move. Schwam, who grew up across the Hudson in Nanuet, has been an Armonk resident for the past 10 years, and seven years previously in Dobbs Ferry.

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The firm, with 35 full-time employees and 80 part-time seasonal workers, offers businesses a one-stop shop for all their holiday decoration needs. Every design is 100-percent original and created in-house. Materials for the displays are purchased from other factories—and then assembled at the company’s Mount Vernon location. The company sets up all displays, and dismantles them each January.

American Christmas was founded in 1968 by Schwam’s father as an extension of his artificial flowers and plants firm. Twenty years later, the elder Schwam sold the company to a corporate conglomerate that had plans to liquidate it. But his son had other ideas, and purchased the company back after borrowing money from his father and two of his father’s friends.

Schwam says that he intends for his firm to be more than just a corporate resident of Westchester. For the 2010 holiday season, the company decorated the New York Life building in Sleepy Hollow, New Roc City in New Rochelle, the Renaissance Westchester Hotel in White Plains, and Moderne Barn, a new restaurant in Armonk. As a gift to his company’s new hometown, Schwam donated the firm’s services this past season to install a Christmas tree at Mount Vernon City Hall and to decorate the city’s public library, police station, and fire headquarters.

Commercial holiday decorations have presented Schwam with a variety of logistical challenges over the years. In 2010, for example, the company installed and decorated a 60-foot live tree from Haverstraw at the New York Stock Exchange. Two years ago, employees traveled to Dubai to install a display at a Saks store in that city. Depending on the scope and particulars of each project, clients can expect an appropriate fee for spreading their share of Christmas cheer—anywhere from $1,000 all the way up to $1 million in holiday green.

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(top) Oversized Christmas lights—designed by Mount Vernon-based American Christmas—adorn the plaza in front of the McGraw-Hill Building in Manhattan; (above) The illuminated angels blowing their horns add a celestial glow to Rockefeller Plaza.

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