What We Need Right Now Is Christmas
(Bloomberg) -- At the moment, all of our plans are on hold. But that doesn’t mean we here at Bloomberg Pursuits aren’t planning the experiences we’ll rush out to enjoy when it’s safe to do so. We’re sharing our ideas with you in the hopes that they will help inspire you—and we’d love to hear what you are daydreaming about, too. Send us your ideas at email@example.com, and we’ll flesh some of them out for this column.
Travel writer and retail expert Mark Ellwood knows the perfect antidote to today’s dark times: mainlining some holiday cheer. And this tiny, Bavaria-mad town in central Michigan is just where he’s going to do it.
It’s only May, and I can’t wait for Christmas.
I’m not alone. There’s been a growing movement to use the mood-boosting power of the holidays to leaven some of the pandemic-induced gloom. Scrape social media for hashtags such as #christmasinmarch and #christmaslights, for instance; they helped nudge Americans to string up some off-season decorations. They festooned their homes, hoping to unleash some holiday sparkle; such companies as Anheuser-Busch followed the lead. Hallmark Channel deployed the ultimate feel-good weapon: a marathon of its comforting holiday movies—the TV equivalent of a mug of cocoa. This bonus season was dubbed, almost plaintively, “We Need a Little Christmas.”
For me, though, the ultimate treat would be a day spent trawling the aisles of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Mich. At almost seven acres, it claims to be the world’s largest all-Christmas store, stocking more than 50,000 different festive items. The store draws 2 million visitors each year to a tiny town of 5,000 or so just north of Flint; it closes only four days per year—including Christmas—plus a period on Good Friday to allow folks to attend services.
Now, as with all of Michigan, it’s under lockdown.
While I dream of my own visit, I called up Wayne Bronner, the 67-year son of founder Wally, to get to in the spirit. “People from bigger cities love to visit a small town like ours, so that’s prosperous and really safe—there’s virtually no crime,” he says, proudly. “This is an Ozzie and Harriet-type community.”
The son of a German immigrant, Wally was a window trimmer and would-be artist who stumbled on what would become his career. He was asked to paint some Christmas signs by a storekeeper not long after World War II; they proved so popular that he set up a company producing decorations for businesses. He soon expanded into regular retail and gradually, the store grew. In 1976, it moved to its current, 45-acre complex, 27 of which are deeded to the store. (The rest is a farm the family rents out.) Wally died in 2008, and his three children—Wayne and sisters Carla and Maria—now steer the company. It still produces corporate décor, for malls and the like, and services the movie industry. The fiberglass head of a wise man that Arnold Schwarzenegger drop-kicks in Jingle All The Way? That was from Bronner’s.
I can see myself wandering its relentlessly festive aisles, getting lost in the campy plenty. Every year, Wayne and his team hunt down new products for the store, swapping out one-third of those 50,000 trinkets, so there’s always something new to find.
I’ll study the Christmas trees—all artificial, of course—and closely consider the fancy ones from Balsam Hill, pre-lit with freakishly realistic needles that never drop. There’s tinsel to bring a sparkle to my eye, even though this onetime staple has fallen from Christmas favor. “People just think it’s too messy. We sell more garlands now,” Wayne tell me.
There are Nativities, both on display (570, from some 65 countries, in the family’s collection) and for sale. While my eye may go to the hand-painted Fontanini figurines (Manhattan apartment and all), the life-sized tableaus hold particularly fond memories for Wayne. “When I was a kid, packing the ornaments [at] aged 9 or 10, we would play hide and seek in the store, and that was my favorite place to hide—behind the oxen in the life-sized fiberglass nativity set.”
I want a full Santa outfit, from wig and glasses to a white makeup stick that will turn my eyebrows suitably snowy. I’ll give in to the innocent whimsy of the Department 56 series of collectible ceramic figurines. They light up and are meant to be arranged into various tabletop villages: Dickens’ Village, North Pole, Christmas in the City, and Halloween—because why not? There’s even decorations for those decorations. such as fresh-fallen snow to scatter on the cottages, miniature Christmas trees to decorate them, and fire pits for their gardens. The Bronner family displays its personal personal collection of some 1,000 Hummels.
The family is deeply religious, too, so this isn’t a secular holiday store. It’s the “CHRISTmas Wonderland” (their styling), and it sells Bibles alongside the tinsel and trinkets. There’s a chapel onsite, a 56-foot tall replica of the Austrian chapel in which Silent Night was first sung in 1818. I’m not religious at all, but I’d love a chance right now to pause and contemplate somewhere quiet and still.
And, then there are the ornaments.
There isn’t a theme or an idea you can imagine that you can’t somehow find in ornament form. A Chinese takeout box, a Bichon Frisé, the planet Saturn—they’re all here. Personalized ”Sold” signs or spun-glass unicorns, take your pick. I’ve never understood the pickle tradition, supposedly German but apparently all but unknown in its “home” country. I’d rather have an avocado half, or even a roll-aboard suitcase. There are antlers, too, thankfully resin, not bona fide bone.
Bronner’s also offers a special ornament service. Forty years ago, ever the artist, Wally took some plain glass baubles—made in Eastern Europe, still the best source of high-quality glass such as this—and painted the names of the staff members’ children on them as gifts. This sparked an idea that remains among the store’s bestsellers: the $15 custom ornament, painted to spec. Baby announcements are popular, as are sports team pledges. I’ll have to think of mine.
To make a weekend of it, I will book a room overlooking the Cass River at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant & Lodge. Its faux-historic architecture and theme park vibes nod to the country from which most of the town’s settlers claim heritage. There’s a 50-foot-tall Glockenspiel Tower whose 35-bell carillon and animatronic figurines enact a cuckoo-clock-like tale four times daily about the Pied Piper. In the restaurant, which has served food since 1888, I’ll chow down on schnitzel while thinking of Christmas markets and stollen. (I’m not alone in wanting to make a weekend of it, either; the store has been designated an Embassy for Tourism by the state of Michigan, so powerful is its lure.)
Bronner’s, of course, isn’t the only all-Christmas store stateside. There are City Lights in San Diego and House of Holiday in New York City’s Ozone Park neighborhood. (I can hop the subway to get there from my home, once it reopens.) But no place is so mythical as the holiday as Bronner’s—the biggest, most enveloping Christmas store in the country.
Wayne understands the appeal for me all too well. “No matter what the economy is like, you’re still going to need something for Christmas, and to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ,” he tells me. “There’s nothing negative associated with Christmas. It’s the cheeriest time of the year.”
When I do visit, I’m not sure I’ll stretch to the $15,000, 17-foot-high fiberglass Santa Claus. While he’s aimed at malls and the like, plenty of private buyers have splurged on one to help boost Christmas swagger in a neighborhood. Two-thirds of the store’s stock, Wayne says, won’t cost me more than $20, though, so I plan to pile a shopping cart high without worrying about the final tally. Christmas cheer, especially right now, would feel priceless.
It might seem nuts to consider the holidays right now, but it’s a warm, cozy distraction—and I’m a planner. This year ,more than ever, I want to contribute to a good cause with my greetings, so I’ve already started browsing for cards at Greet For Good, which rounds up payments for the Christmas cards on offer to support more than 200 different nonprofits.
Have a daydream of your own? Let us know, and it may feature in a future column.
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