Ex­plorer

The 12 Months of Christ­mas

Bonita & Estero Magazine - - DEPARTMENTS - BY DAYNA HARPS TER

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.

The Silent Night Chapel in Franken­muth sits ad­ja­cent to Bron­ner’s.

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.

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), re­spec­tively.

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