Knowing me, knowing you

The smartest Christmas window display in New York is drawing spectators by the hundred. It features a couch, a Freudian psychoanalyst and a patient. Daniel Jeffreys was that patient
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In New York at Christmas, children see Santa Claus while adults see the father of psychoanalysis. That's why at 4 pm on a Saturday I'm lying on a battered leather couch in the window of Barneys, a luxurious Manhattan department store. Outside, hundreds of New Yorkers pause to peer through the glass as a Freudian analyst asks me about my dreams.

Barneys is a store like no other in New York. The staff are undoubtedly all aspiring actors, but when they treat you badly it's the real thing. Impeccably dressed in fashionable black, they treat the majority of customers with a mixture of contempt and pity. "I'll accept your grubby credit card," their faces seem to say, "Even though I know you are unworthy."

A store with such haute pretension could never have sullied its display windows by a regular Father Christmas and a few fairy lights. Barneys has to have high-concept windows, and this year they plough an erratic course through 20th-century history, with Martin Luther King, Marlene Dietrich and the Freud tableau, a window entitled "Neurotic Yule: A Homage to Sigmund Freud".

It is the peak shopping hour when I begin my session with David Rakoff, Barneys' fenestrated Freudian. Outside, the world walks by, swinging expensive-looking bags. About one-fifth of passers-by stop and gawp, for it seems that the spectacle of spying on such a private moment has gripped New York's imagination. Some Manhattan shoppers claim they have visited several times. The same people probably like going to zoos and rubbernecking at road traffic accidents.

Rakoff, the son of a psychiatrist father and psychoanalyst mother, is an amateur therapist who dresses like a Thirties shrink, complete with tweed jacket and horn-rimmed glasses. He is not a classic Freudian. He talks too much. As I take in the 80 square feet of his "doctor's surgery" he tells me how surprised he is to have an English visitor. "It seems to me peculiar," he says, in a clipped accent. "An Englishman in therapy. Isn't that an oxymoron? Like a vegetarian in a steakhouse?"

Ignoring the stereotyping of Brits as anally retentive and repressed, I ask him for his take on Christmas. "It's all about guilt and control," he says. "We give presents because of the hate we feel deep down for the recipient."

Outside on the pavement a pair of small children with their noses pressed against the window are making faces, desperate to attract our attention. Rakoff ignores them. Following his suit, I enquire about Father Christmas. "Do you believe in him?" Rakoff asks. "Not a bit," I reply. "Except on Christmas Eve."

"Let's look at the name. `Father' Christmas," he says, emphatically. "It's obviously an Oedipal fantasy. Santa Claus is supposed to come down a chimney, a simulacrum for a vagina. Then he leaves presents and children are always anxious about what kind. So it's really all about parents engaged in sex, an act that necessarily excludes their kids. It's no accident that Freud and Father Christmas became popular at the same time."

In front of me, as Rakoff speaks from behind the couch, I can see a video screen that repeatedly shows a monochrome picture of Sigmund Freud, followed by a skull. Rakoff seems to sense that the theme of death has caught my eye. "Presents are a non-violent form of assassination," he says. "Haven't you felt enraged by someone, to the extent that you bought them a present? You have to do something to that person but it's still illegal to strafe their body with bullets, so instead you buy them a present. You take the moral high ground. Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to make your enemies feel small."

We've all opened gifts from loved ones on Christmas Day that do nothing but disappoint. "Doesn't she know me yet," we think secretly, tearing paper from a John Grisham novel or a bottle of Brut. Rakoff has analysed this problem. "The giver has an explicit agenda. It's not simply that here's a gift. The giver is demanding to be liked. A gift is also an attempt to curate somebody else's taste. Women use this as an opportunity to punish men. We are beneath them, so our gifts can never be adequate. If a woman lavishes praise on a lover's gift it means she doesn't care for him any longer. He can expect the heave-ho."

The pavement outside is now crowded six deep with onlookers. They point at us and then prod each other. They all have cheery, seasonal faces. It's a good job they can't hear what we are saying.

"There's nothing innocent about it," says Rakoff. "Why do you think so many people commit suicide at this time of year? Many of the patients I've seen in here say the season just rubs their noses in the inadequacies of their lives. If you're not a perfect Wasp family with a turkey the colour of Krugerrands, 25 December just makes you feel like last week's garbage."

The surprising fact about Rakoff's window is that he's had a few dozen genuine therapy sessions in the last three weeks. He sees patients in the display only at weekends, but his visitors have been quick to open up. "I have people confess stuff they have never told anybody before," he says, ignoring a large blonde woman in a fur coat who keeps taking our picture. "I have had tears. I have had decisions made."

Does that mean the window, with its public setting, creates an effective environment for therapy? Rakoff thinks it does. "I think the fantasy element persuades some people to share confidences here that they would not trade with their own therapist."

A man dressed as Father Christmas has taken up a position near our window. He's ringing a bell, soliciting money for the Salvation Army. Above my head five television screens are showing scenes from Freud's life. Alongside them is a tiny bed, like a child's cot. Freud is most remembered because he taught us that our dreams have meaning, and that bananas can be symbolic of something other than fresh fruit. It is only in New York that such a character could win such a prominent association with Christmas.

Lying on Rakoff's couch I begin to feel depressed. I feel I have hidden from myself the real motivations of Christmas. It seems that all those carefully wrapped gifts under my tree are in fact emotional time bombs. Seeking release, I ask him to play a word-association game. "Red," I say. "Blood," he replies. "White." "Cocaine." "Snow." "Heroin." "Ho, Ho, Ho." "Chinese food." "Reindeer." "Sex." I jump at this last connection. Surely Rakoff cannot be linking the adorably red-nosed Rudolph with carnal behaviour?

"Look, it's obvious," he says. "Santa Claus is pulled by reindeer through the sky. Freud taught us, in The Interpretation of Dreams, that flying is symbolic of sex. A dream that includes flying is an allusion to an unfulfilled sexual longing. We never see a Mother Christmas. No wonder that guy is always up in the sky."

Our session is over. As I stand I can see looks of disappointment on the faces of our audience. Then I notice they all have bags full of gifts. Rakoff has opened my eyes. These people are psychic shock troops, ready to do untold emotional damage: walking proof that Christmas does more harm than good, except to retailers.

Passing back through Barneys, I'm ready to spread Rakoff's message. Then I pass some carol singers on a street corner and suddenly I'm humming: "Then one foggy Christmas night, Santa came to call. Rudolph with your nose so bright, Will you guide my sleigh tonight ..."

I realise that Freud was right about one thing: conditioning runs deepn