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Michigan's Top Ten Christmas Traditions

by Lisa Diggs

For most of us, the holiday season is steeped in our own unique traditions. When I was a kid, for example, Santa used to come and pound on our door early on Christmas Eve. He would drop one gift in advance for my cousins, my brother, and me. The most exciting part wasn’t the gift, but running out the door as quickly as we could to try to catch a glimpse of the jolly old man. Those precious memories with family last a lifetime. Just like families have their own special traditions, our state does too. In no particular order, here are our top ten Michigan holiday traditions.

10. Drive-thru Holiday Lights Holiday light displays have become a phenomenon all around the country. There’s even a television competition between homeowners for who can “out Griswold” the other. Here in the automotive capitol of the world, we have made driving around to see lights a holiday right of passage. Once upon a time there was a legendary display at Dominos Farms in Ann Arbor, but lines of cars were so long it became a challenge for people who lived in the area. Now you can venture to the Wayne County Lightfest through Hines Drive, Christmas Lite Show in Grand Rapids, or Nite Lites at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. You also can’t beat just piling up the family in your car, and heading out to hunt through neighborhoods for gorgeous (or gaudy) spectacles.

9.   Skating in Campus Martius Even if you think your skating days are over, there is still plenty of magic to be found in the heart of Detroit. A gorgeous Christmas tree towers above the rink, horse and carriage rides surround the park, glass huts filled with holiday gift ideas await, and even a giant outdoor lodge to get an adult beverage, play board games, and warm up with friends and family. It’s the ideal setting for a holiday experience in the city.

8.   Rochester’s Big Bright Light Show It may have started out as a way to encourage more people to shop and dine in this upscale town, but now a visit to Rochester has become an annual treat for many families. The buildings in downtown Rochester are covered with more than 1 million points of glimmering color, that almost need to be experienced to be believed.  

7.   Setting Foot on Mackinac Island Sometimes we dream of an old-fashioned Christmas like those sung about in popular carols or captured in a lithograph by Currier and Ives. Alas, those days may be long gone for most of the world, but we have Mackinac Island. A brisk ferry ride or tiny puddle hop by plane and you can figuratively step back in time. Wander the sleepy streets, take in the simple décor of boughs, wreaths, trees and red ribbons. Transport yourself to an era devoid of noisy traffic and disruptive cell phones to focus on the true spirit of the season.

6.  Harvesting a Christmas Tree Picking out a tree may be common practice around the country, but there are few places that make it more possible to search for and cut down your own tree each year. As one of the largest growers of Christmas trees in the nation, there are dozens of farms where you can select and cut your own tree. If that’s more work than your family can handle, it’s still a spectacular tradition to visit a farm or lot, soak in the smell of the pines, learn the difference between a Balsam and a Douglas Fir, and pick out the perfect tree for your home.

5.  Visiting Christmas This is one of the few states with a town that’s actually called Christmas, and the folks there take that responsibility seriously. Nestled in the Upper Peninsula just west of Munising and east of Au Train on the shore of Lake Superior, this little hamlet truly embraces its namesake. It was given its name by a Munising man who started a roadside factory to make holiday gift items there in 1938. The factory is long gone, but community is still home to about 400 people. All the businesses in town carry out the theme. From the “Welcome to Christmas” road sign to Santa, Mrs. Claus, elves and reindeer scattered throughout town, it’s all about Christmas every day of the year.

4.  Participating in Mitzvah Day It may be strange to see a Hebrew word on a list of best Christmas traditions, and yet, it is undoubtedly one of the greatest traditions in the state. In other places in the world, Mitzvah Day, a day of community volunteerism, typically takes place in November, but the Jewish people of Metro Detroit decided to schedule their annual service initiative for Christmas Day each year. The idea is to allow Christian volunteers to spend the day celebrating with their families. As if that wasn’t all reason enough to love this holiday tradition, over time, local Muslims have joined in to work alongside their Jewish neighbors. It is perhaps the most loving, peaceful, hopeful act of the season.

3.  Shopping at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland It’s a tough transition to jump from a concept that embodies the true spirit of the holidays to one as secular as shopping, but it is sheer numbers that puts Bronner’s so high on this list. Bronner’s in Frankenmuth covers 2.2 acres, that’s nearly 1.7 football fields, and welcomes over two million guests annually. Approximately 100,000 lights illuminate its Christmas Lane every evening from dusk until midnight to the tune of an average electrical bill of $1250 per day! For many families, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a trip to Bronner’s to select a new ornament for the tree, and of course get a chicken dinner at nearby Bavarian Inn or Zehnder’s.

2.  Hopping Aboard the Polar Express Long before Tom Hanks became an animated character in this holiday film circa 2004, Michigan native Chris Van Allsburg’s book by the same name was a hit with little ones. It chronciles the journey of a young boy who hops aboard a mysterious train to head to the North Pole. The train in the movie was inspired by the Pere Marquette 1225, which offers North Pole Express rides each holiday season. It is one of the toughest tickets to get, but is a uniquely Michigan Christmas memory waiting to happen.

1.  Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village Henry Ford’s visionary step back in time is always worth a visit, but perhaps never more so than during the holiday season. Lanterns light the paths, chestnuts are roasting, carriages and Model Ts share streets, and bygone eras come to life. You can walk into a home from another century and find costumed guides literally roasting a goose as the family of that time would have done. Victorian carolers add to the revelry, as does a ride on the glorious carousel. Santa greets guests from a balcony, and almost magically seems to know the names of children below. The evening is topped off by a spectacular fireworks display, creating a yuletide experience that you can only find here in Michigan. 


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