The 12 Months of Christmas
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. Yet, “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. Looking for an ornament shaped like a tooth? A smiley face with braces? What color? Need a stable for your nativity set? Choose from among 26 models. An artificial tree complete with lights? Which of the 72 choices speaks to you? Bronner’s 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 it annually. Nearly every evening, more than 100,000 lights adorn a halfmile 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. Bronner’s 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. Still presiding 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.
Zehnder 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.
On that 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 beauty-shop coiffed.
“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 4-yearold Buick the half mile to the inn, she says.
Both the inn and Zehnder’s restaurant across from it are known for their familystyle 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. If you like to shop, it’s easy to walk off that all-you-can-eat feast in Frankenmuth. I grew 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.
The most 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.
Wally 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.
About 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.
While 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, oldtime 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.”
The 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.
Frankenmuth’s 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.
Branson, Missouri, holds an annual Ozark Mountain Christmas Festival with huge light displays, shows and parades, and, of course, music. See explorebranson.com. Like 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.
Helen, Georgia, 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.
Since 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 and northpolealaska.com.
In 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 Dec. 2 and 3. Check out nbbd.com/godo/FortChristmas/.
For more on Frankenmuth, go to Frankenmuth.org, bavarianinn.com, and bronners.com.
Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland is more than 1 1/2 football fields long and stocked with 50,000 holiday items. Below, Frankenmuth is a popular destination for families. Bottom, a horse and buggy is typical transportation around town.
The Silent Night Chapel in Frankenmuth sits adjacent to Bronner’s.
Top left: Musicians play traditional German tunes on the patio at the Bavarian Inn. Top right: Dorothy Zehnder, left, and Irene Bronner are the matriarchs of Frankenmuth. Their families own the Bavarian Inn and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland (bottom),...