FRANKENMUTH, Mich. — The holiday spirit swirls like pixie dust as we drive through the lighted archways of Christmas Lane to Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth.
The family-run emporium has been a perennial favorite in this Bavarian-themed mid-Michigan town for more than 70 years. Today, it lays claim to being the world’s largest Christmas store and attracts 2 million visitors annually.
Musical strains of familiar childhood carols, such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Deck the Halls,” float over the jam-packed parking lot where we follow a long line of cars searching for an empty space. A 17-foot-high Santa Claus and larger-than-life snowmen, nutcrackers, angels and wise men on camels adorn the 27 acres of manicured grounds around the sprawling red-roof complex and create countless Instagram moments for parents with awestruck toddlers. In a nod to the religious origins of the season and the Bronner family’s strong traditions, a replica of the original Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria, stands on a grassy knoll not far away.
We join the throng of shoppers streaming into Bronner’s supersize retail store, which covers an area larger than one and a half football fields. Inside, we are engulfed by dazzling floor-to-ceiling displays of twinkling Christmas lights, gaily festooned trees, winsome storybook characters and endless racks of rainbow-colored ornaments.
With 50,000 Christmas gifts and trims from 50 nations in stock, it’s hard to know just where to start. Bronner’s red-shirted and red-vested elves point the way to specialty collections showcasing 1,000 Hummel and 1,700 Precious Moments figurines and 500 styles of Nativities from around the world.
For many Michigan families, a trip to Bronner’s has become the highlight of their annual holiday celebration. The store, open 361 days a year, also attracts busloads of out-of-state and international visitors. In recognition of this peripatetic clientele, Bronner’s salesroom signs bid “welcome” and express a “thank you” to visitors in more than 60 languages, including Amharic, Urdu, Swedish, and Russian. Snippets of conversation in Spanish, Italian, Polish, and even Macedonian can be overheard in check-out lines.
We head for the Bronner’s reception office to meet with one of the Bronner family members. It is slow going in a Saturday crowd that will top off at 25,000, and we need a GPS to keep us pointed in the right direction. In Section 10, we get bogged down in a jam-up of red shopping carts and RV-size baby strollers, but the snag gives us time to check out some of the store’s 8,000 traditional and themed ornaments. There’s something for everyone, from dog lovers, food junkies, and music aficionados to fishermen, ballerinas, and sports enthusiasts.
We pick out a red-and-white birdhouse ornament and a Santa dressed in a blue University of Michigan sweatshirt and maize trousers for friends in Ann Arbor. We also spot an orange-and-blue football-helmet ornament for our nephew who is a big Florida Gators fan. We toy with the idea of bringing home cellphone-shaped ornaments as gag gifts.
At reception, we are greeted by president and CEO Wayne Bronner, the son of the late Wally Bronner, a second-generation German stonemason who became a sign painter and commercial decorator before founding his store in 1945. Decked out in a red blazer and holiday tie imprinted with colored Christmas bulbs, Wayne, 65, tells us his 90-year-old mother, Irene, still answers the store phone on Monday and Friday nights. Five other family members also help run the company.
“It’s a cheerful business, because everyone loves Christmas and is full of the Christmas spirit,” says Wayne, who travels regularly to Europe and Asia with his wife, Lorene, and son, Dietrich, to buy new merchandise and work with artisans who create exclusive decorations for Bronner’s. “We keep things fresh and change out one-third of our items every year.”
Over the decades, Bronner’s has attracted numerous celebrities, including performing artists, movie stars and high-ranking politicians. Singers Pat Boone, Marie Osmond, Anita Bryant, Andy Williams, the Lennon Sisters, Faith Hill, and Twila and Starla Paris, and actresses Polly Bergen and Cindy Williams all visited the store. Actor John Wayne once ordered a Santa suit from Bronner’s by telephone.
Michigan governors John Engler, James Blanchard, and Jennifer Granholm often dropped by Bronner’s with their families, and Laura Bush, a former first lady, reflects fondly on her visit to the store during a presidential campaign swing through Michigan in her memoir, “Spoken from the Heart.” Notable sports figures from the past, such as Detroit Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, race car driver Al Unser Jr., Gordie Howe, a.k.a. “Mr. Hockey,” and Detroit Red Wings star Sergei Fedorov, also stopped in.
Much of the hard work that earned Bronner’s a 1986 worldwide Golden Santa Claus Award, a 1976 designation as an “Embassy for Michigan Tourism” and other accolades is not visible to casual visitors, however.
Wayne offers to take us behind the scenes to see the inner workings of the organization and suggests we go the “back way” to avoid the crowds. Pushing through an unmarked door into the warehouse, he leads us through a maze of steel racks stacked with shipping boxes of merchandise — more than 100,000 cartons arrive annually. We peek into work areas where employees are inscribing personalized greetings on Christmas ornaments — completing 400,000 each year — and embroidering names on Christmas stockings. Workers whiz by us on electric carts, as Wayne points out the wall where he has mounted the bicycle Wally once used to navigate the quarter-mile-long corridor.
At the shipping area — where up to 6,000 packages containing Internet and catalog orders are sent out daily — we ascend a narrow staircase to the second floor. Stepping onto the catwalk high above the retail store, we squeeze between giant Christmas ornaments and snowmen with carrot noses to peer down at the brilliant kaleidoscope of color below.
Retracing our steps, we part ways with Wayne and then stop for pizza and chili at the Season’s Eatings café. Afterward, we browse through the lighting section and select two strands of colored LED Christmas lights for our tree.
With our purchases in hand, we head for the exit, feeling relieved we can locate our car and that our home electric bill is nowhere near the $1,250 a day that Bronner’s pays to keep all those Christmas lights twinkling.
If you go . . .
Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, 25 Christmas Lane, Frankenmuth, Mich. 989-652-9931 or 800-ALL-YEAR. www.bronners.comClaudia Capos can be reached at email@example.com.