If you're looking for Santa Claus, a good place to start would be a small Michigan town called Frankenmuth, where Bronner's Christmas store keeps the spirit of the holiday alive year round.
Visitors turn off of Frankenmuth's Main Street and travel a half-mile side road, driving past outsized Nativity figures, Santas, and snowmen--before finally arriving at 25 Christmas Lane, home to Bronner's and all things Christmas.
Bronner's is nirvana for Christmas enthusiasts, but be forewarned that if acres and acres of Christmas displays and an unabashed embrace of the holiday's Christian character isn't your cup of tea, a little bit of Bronner's may go a long way for you. Still, it's something you have to stop and see to at least say that you did so!
Billed as the "World's Largest Christmas Store", the building itself looks relatively low-key from the outside (sort of a mash-up between multiple pole barns and Alpine-style chalets), but Christmas lovers will delight in the treasures held inside.
Bronner's is big. Really big.
The 7.35-acre building is the size of 5-1/2 football fields and sits on 27 acres of land.
A parking lot that can accommodate over 1,000 cars and 50 buses at any given time means you don't have to worry about where to park your ride.
Bronner's draws over 2 million visitors each year to shop and gawk at over 50,000 trims and gifts, more than 350 decorated Christmas trees, and more than 700 animated figures. Many visitors come from Michigan and surrounding states, but most months find visitors coming from all 50 states, Canada, and from elsewhere around the world.
Shoppers snap up 1.3 million glass ornaments, 700,000 feet of garland, and 135,000 light sets each year. You can choose from over 500 different styles of Nativity scenes, Bibles in several languages, or 150 different styles of nutcrackers.
The store racks up something like $900 in electricity charges every day, much of which goes to power as many as 100,000 individual lights that decorate the store's interior.
The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is, of course, the busiest time of the year at Bronner's. Santa holds court for as many as 12,000 children at the store during that time, and as many as 50,000 people may visit the store on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Bronner's is one of the area's largest employers, with over 500 employees working at the store during the peak months of November and December. Consider the fact that the city of Frankenmuth has fewer than 5,000 residents, and that tourism drives the Bavarian-themed city's economy, then you understand just how important big Bronner's is to this small town.
Many visitors make a day, or even a weekend, out of visiting Bronner's, hitting one of Frankenmuth's all-you-can-eat chicken dinner restaurants, and shopping in the cute downtown stores or at the nearby outlet mall out on the I-75 expressway less than two hours' drive north of Detroit.
I've always lived within a couple hours' drive from Bronner's, and I grew up visiting the store at least every couple of years or so--and not just during the holidays. The store is open 361 days a year, closing only on New Year's Day, Easter, U.S. Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
I can remember several visits, when stepping into the winter fantasy land of Bronner's was the perfect antidote to a hot summer day.
I have many fond memories of Bronner's. I bought a number of my tree ornaments there, and a simple bronze-colored spire of a tree-topper I scored out of Bronner's sale bin years ago for $3, graces my tree every year.
The spirit behind Bronner's is founder Wally Bronner, a sign painter who parlayed his love of Christmas decorations and talent for creating displays into a Christmas themed business.
Bronner began painting signs as a high school student in 1943. He began his full-time business career with his 1945 high school graduation, establishing several different businesses before building the big Bronner's store on Christmas Lane in 1977.
Wally Bronner loved his career and remained with the company as the chairman of its board and chief ambassador of good cheer until his April 1, 2008 death at the age of 81. Bronner's wife Irene continues to carry on the tradition Wally loved so much, running the business with several of her children and their spouses, and keeping the lights on for Santa!
© Dominique King 2009 All rights reserved