Taking the I-75 North out of Detroit can be messy — cars swerving between lanes, traffic violations scattered like so many snow banks, and the 70mph speed limit is so much faster than our strict Canadian stomachs are used to. Heading North passed Flint, right before you reach Saginaw, you’ll find Michigan’s own “Little Bavaria,” guised as Frankenmuth.
Wrapped up in numerous cotton layers and stuffed into the back of my aunt’s Saturn Aura, her coworkers gossip and sing along to 100.3 WNIC, the best radio station for Christmas tunes, 24/7 after November 1st. We go seeking the extreme gaudiness of the world’s biggest Christmas store, Bronner’s, and my aunt is sure to stuff the car with as many decorations it can fit, to the dismay of my uncle.
“Ah, America – land of the free-to-be-as-big-and-gaudy-as-you-please,” Lonely Planet hits it on the nose about the frenzied holiday flood of shoppers, young and old, scrambling for the best presents they can get their grubby little hands on.
Being a to-die-for Christmas fangirl, but a virgin shopper to Frankenmuth, Michigan, I could only watch out the car window as we passed snow-covered Bavarian architecture. The stunning holiday lights twinkling and reflecting red and green off my glasses, I gaped out the window as we drove down a street named Christmas Lane.
First on the agenda was Bronner’s, before we explored the small town of horse-drawn carriages and snow-covered, arched bridges that is Frankenmuth. Walking into the large factory-like building, I was bodily assaulted with holiday cheer. We jumped into the mess of sparkly ornaments and handmade garland wreaths bigger than my 5’3” body. I wished we had the know-all to first dip our toes in; wade the water of the epitome of Christmas commercialization before jumping in head first. My feet and ankles ached like no other from the seven acres of Yuletide spirit, stacked from the floor to the high ceilings with everything I could possibly imagine one may need for the holidays. There were large nut crackers on the top shelves, towering over you with their dead eyes and cackling wooden jaws. Carols echoed through the large, industrial building as I followed my aunt through the islands of ornaments. Each hung delicately on their hooks — I gave them a wide berth, terrified my coat would snag on one and I’d have to pay $40 for shattered glass and disappointed looks.
Even the employees of the place seemed to be full of holiday cheer, dressed in elf hats, santa get-ups, and smiles that pulled their mouths far too wide to be considered friendly. Don’t get me wrong — I’m just as into Christmas as any other Who from Whoville, but the LED trees and substantial price tags eventually make your head ache. I dragged my feet for the last half hour or so, my coat far too warm and sweat inching down my neck, begging my aunt to move on from picking out the ideal baubles for her eleven grandchildren. Not long after, we finally made it to the registers where the cashiers happily rung up our gifts and we ventured back out into the bitter, icy Michigan winter.
Stomachs rumbling fiercely, we parked our car, filled to the brim with bags, into a small parking lot of Zehnder’s. It was one of two of the largest family owned restaurants in the world, widely famous for their heavenly chicken dinners, and at that point I could have cared less if they were the best or worst; I was desperate for anything to eat. The stark white of the building blended seamlessly with the snow banks, the floor-to-ceiling windows gleaming with white lights, just as every other building on the block did. The lobby was full of shoppers in suits and winter dresses, and travellers off the street who were also dragged in by their aching stomachs. The building was half-restaurant and half-Inn, the latter part of the building being consistently busy at this time of year. A small hallway off to the side of the lobby was encased in glass, the extensive history of the Zehnder’s family’s passion on display; the story of how the Zehnder family took Frankenmuth by storm. The first meals served were in 1856 in the Exchange Hotel, only eleven years after Frankenmuth was founded, and you can see the influence the Zehnder family’s passion had on the private sector throughout the town.
A smiling woman sat our group down at a short, round table with golden covered chairs and a young, attractive waiter came by to ask for our drink choices. He chuckled and faux-flirted with the middle-aged women who giggled and made jokes they probably wouldn’t have, had they been at home in Canada. The moment he left, all my aunt’s coworkers exchanged curious glances, making comments on his friendliness and watching as he walked away. I ordered a chicken noodle soup, the broth clear and filling my stomach with warmth, while I smelled the enticing, legendary chicken that my aunt ordered.
After the meal, we decided we had not, in fact, had enough shopping and took our full bellies and puffy coats to the intricate street full of old Bavarian buildings. The heels on my boots clacked along the cobblestone pathways, the sound echoed by the large masses of shoppers and the hooves of a couple horses down the way. Walking down Main St., Frankenmuth was like walking back in time — you could even get your own “old time” family photo done at one of the unique shops on the strip. It was the epitome of tourist traps; a small town full of gift shops with German trinkets and toys galore. I picked out an old traditional mug for my father at Rau’s Country Store, finding what I thought was the perfect depiction of manliness from a hideous mug, and I knew he’d love it.
My aunt mentioned the smell of cocoa. It floated down the street from the Fudge Kitchen where you could watch the employees lay out the dark sea salt caramel over a big table to be rolled and baked. The boutiques were full of friendly faces, making jokes and small talk while you looked at all the different nicknacks, and Sue L. on Trip Advisor says, “we felt like we were among friends, not strangers.”
When I wandered into a little dead-end crescent that was cornered with benches and a stucco lighthouse, I could see beyond the spruce and pine skirting it to a little waterfall running into a small river. The masses didn’t covet this little sanctuary, as no shops reached this far and my breath puffed out visibly in front of me as I sat to rest my feet. I could see a stone bridge, people leaning over the ledge to see the snow-covered water underneath, and I wished it wasn’t so cold so I could watch the boats pass by.
A large nut cracker man watched over the bustling tourists, and the full weight of the commercialization of the holiday hit me like the weight of ten bags my aunt thrust into my hands — and I’ll admit a few of my own, too. But the biting cold winter needed something that held a bit more magic than the usual Canadian streets I was growing tired of. The Santa Clause’s North Pole is the only thing that could hold a candle to Frankenmuth, and it was just an hour cross the Detroit border; I didn’t need a sleigh, only a car full of gossiping women. On the way home, the was car uncomfortably warm and full, the anxiety of navigating through the rushing Detroit streets back towards the Ambassador Bridge weighing heavily down on us. I decided to take Frankenmuth’s exploitation of St. Nicholas and his wintry season in stride, battling it with true Christmas spirit.