Gallery: The 12 Months of Christmas - November/December 2017 [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland is more than 1 1/2 football fields long and stocked with 50,000 holiday items. Photo courtesy of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland.
The day was sunny, 70-ish
degrees with no chance of precipitation when I arrived at Bronner’s Christmas
Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, in mid-August.
“Snow” by Rosemary Clooney wafted down on parked cars from speakers mounted
high on the building. And what a building. It’s huge: more than 1½ football
fields long and full of absolutely everything Christmas.
for an ornament shaped like a tooth? A smiley face with braces? What color?
stable for your nativity set? Choose from among 26 models. An artificial tree
complete with lights? Which of the 72 choices speaks to you?
stocks more than 50,000 trims and gifts in its showroom. From ornaments to
table runners to trees, miniature villages to stockings and steins, it’s all
inside, whether you visit in January or June. “It’s beginning to look a lot
like Christmas” applies year-round here. More than 2 million visitors experience
every evening, more than 100,000 lights adorn a half-mile drive on Christmas
Lane. Animated decorations, trees, lampposts and more create a Christmas canopy
that’s like a big holiday hug for your car, and you.
is one of the town’s anchors; the other is the Bavarian Inn, which is about a
mile away and across the 230-ton, 239-foot-long narrow wooden covered bridge,
representing the vision of two titans of “Little Bavaria”—Frankenmuth’s
modern-day fathers Eddie and William “Tiny” Zehnder. Eddie owned Zehnder’s
restaurant, Tiny owned the Bavarian Inn, and these establishments across the
street from one another became the centerpiece of this town on the Cass River.
A warning to visitors: must love lederhosen—at least on other people.
over Christmas in Frankenmuth—and every other holiday, really—are its
matriarchs: Dorothy Zehnder, widow of Tiny, and Irene Bronner, widow of
Bronner’s founder Wally, who are ages 95 and 90, respectively.
A horse and buggy is typical transportation around town. Photo by Dayna Harpster.
and her sister began waitressing at the Bavarian Inn in their teens, when the
restaurant was owned by the Fischer family. “We weren’t old enough to serve
liquor yet, so we had to have a buddy system,” Dorothy said at the end of a
workday in late summer. She still runs the restaurant kitchen.
August day, the petite woman wore a traditional dirndl with a necklace given to
her by a representative of Hofbräuhaus brewery, a vendor. Her hair was freshly
“I know I’m not as sharp as I used to be,” she
says. “It takes me a little longer to do things, but I still work eight hours
and it doesn’t bother me.” She still gets up every day before sunrise. “I drink
coffee and sit on the sofa and just watch the birds and the squirrels and the
rabbits,” before driving her four-year-old Buick the half mile to the inn, she
inn and Zehnder’s restaurant across from it are known for their family-style
chicken dinners, served since Mother’s Day 1929. At the Bavarian Inn, Zehnder
still tastes everything and eats chicken every day in one form or another.
like to shop, it’s easy to walk off that all-you-can-eat feast in Frankenmuth.
up in northern Ohio and made several trips to Frankenmuth in the early ’70s,
but I hadn’t been back since. What happened in the ensuing 40 years was nothing
short of a retail explosion. It’s perfect for Christmas shopping.
obvious change is Bronner’s, which grew from a small space owned by sign-painter
Wally Bronner to encompass three small shops along Main Street downtown,
numbered 1, 2 and 3. In 1976, they were combined into a one-building holiday
behemoth on the southern end of town.
and Irene’s daughter, Carla Bronner Spletzer, today is the company vice
president. She remembers attending staff and family holiday parties when she
was a kid. “Dad painted names on the ornaments for their kids and people liked
them. Nobody was really doing that back then,” she says. Personalized
decorations are a hallmark of Bronner’s business today.
half a mile away is Zehnder’s Splash Village Hotel & Waterpark, which
opened in 2005. Its 50,000-square-foot swim palace is a multilevel,
multi-attraction space with a retractable roof.
Frankenmuth shines brightest at Christmastime, it’s a sight in the summer as
well. Brightly colored flowers line the streets and adorn the horse-drawn
carriages that amble past several microbreweries and shops dedicated to cheese,
fudge, old-time photos, woolens, “kaffee,” clocks, kites, gems and botanicals,
beads, barbecue, books, the city’s historical museum and visitors’ center. Visitors
are all ages, from families with tiny kids, to couples young and old, to women
on a “girls’ weekend.”
town’s founding families are honored in the Bavarian Inn’s 360 rooms. Each
donated marriage licenses, birth certificates, photos and other memorabilia. My
room was named for the Johann Michael Kraenzlein family of Aha, Germany, who
settled near Frankenmuth about 1847. Like all early settlers here, they were
Lutherans. Their son, Herman, became a blacksmith and later worked in a local brewery.
embrace of its history is also quirky. Expect polka dancing and sing-alongs. Tours
can be taken on the old-timey PedAle trolley, a 16-person drink-and-ride vehicle
that parks at the town’s oldest craft brewery. The original neon sign that
dates at least back to 1936 still beckons diners to Zehnder’s restaurant, where
in front, in warm weather, a huge topiary chicken plumed with more than 5,600
flowers stands sentinel.
Towns that thrive at
Christmas, or on the coattails of Christmas all year, dot the country. In
addition to Frankenmuth, Michigan—between Saginaw and Flint in the south
central part of the state—places to catch the holiday spirit include the
following towns. The first three are suggestions from Country Living magazine.
holds an annual Ozark Mountain
Christmas Festival with huge light displays, shows and parades, and, of course,
music. See explorebranson.com
Frankenmuth, Leavenworth, Washington,
is also Bavarian-themed, offering festivals, carolers, 21 miles of lights along
rooftops and fences, and hand-bell concerts. And lots of snow. See Leavenworth.org.
, has also fashioned itself into an
Alpine village. The former logging town in north Georgia holds a tree auction
and festival annually. See helenga.org
the temperature can plunge to 60 degrees below zero in North Pole, Alaska, where the town centerpiece is Santa Claus
House, you may want to limit your visit to correspondence. The town offers
personalized letters from Santa for $9.95. See santaclaushouse.com
addition, Christmas, Florida, is a
tiny (3.4-square-mile), unincorporated census-designated place near Orlando
where about 1,000 people live. Its post office is swarmed each December with
people seeking a “Christmas” postmark on their cards. The post office has a
booth at the Fort Christmas “Cracker Christmas” celebration December 2 and 3.
Written by Dayna Harpster, a writer living in Southwest Florida.