Last December, my mom, my two-year-old and I visited Frankenmuth, Michigan, to kick off the Christmas season with Bavarian charm. Though it was just our trio meeting up in Michigan, the trip turned out to be more of a four-generation vacation.
Frankenmuth appealed to us because like our family, Frankenmuth has German roots, and, in our eyes, no other culture makes Christmas more magical.
My mom's mother, who I've always known as Oma, was half German by ancestry. Oma and my mom actually lived in Germany, just outside the state of Bavaria when my grandfather was stationed at a US Army base in Mannheim in the early '70s. Though neither of them gained fluency in German, they learned a few phrases.
When I was a kid, my mom with her cheeky sense of humor taught me, "Ein mehr bier, bitte,” which means "One more beer, please." Oma taught me: handschuh, which is pronounced something like "hand-shoe." I thought it was hilarious because it means “glove”—a shoe for your hand!
Oma meant the world to me. She held me the day I was born. When I was grown, she was the first person my husband and I told when we got engaged. A few years later, she was the first we told that we were expecting a baby. I've never seen a greater expression of joy than her face at that moment. She delighted in feeling baby’s first kicks, but Oma passed away two months before Lex was born. Two years later, Oma was our fourth in Frankenmuth, in spirit.
From the airport to Frankenmuth, two-year-old Lex, my mom and I drove from city to suburb to farmland to Bavarian Christmas in the course of 40 minutes. First signs included decorations adorning a barn, a chapel and a home. With the sun setting, the holiday lights started to take the stage. We continued driving on Main Street through town.
"What's that?" Lex asked.
Lighted reindeer, giant candy canes, ribbon-wrapped light poles and other decorations surrounded a huge building and made it clear we were on track for holiday spirit.
"Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland,” my mom answered. “We're going to have fun there.”
As we drove on, architectural details including turrets, spires and exposed wooden beams caught my mom's attention.
"Neat, a clock shop. Oh, and here you go, Mom. What did that say, River Place…?"
"River Place Shops," my mom finished.
I smiled. Shopping was her favorite sport.
I noticed potted flowers along the bridge as we crossed the Cass River, and more groomed plants along sidewalks and in windowsills. The whole Frankenmuth scene was beautifully presented and clearly cared for.
Looking at a pair of roughly four-foot-tall nutcrackers decorating an entryway, Lex said, "That's so cuuute!" as we drove past.
My mom and I burst out laughing. We realized we'd said, "That's cute" a few times already.
Our attention was stolen by a fudge shop, and then again by a brewery.
"Ein mehr bier, bitte!" I exclaimed.
"Ja! Das is richtig," my mom answered (yes, that is right).
After Lex’s jabberwocky response, my mom and I started trying to teach her German. I focused on “handschuh.” I told Lex her great-grandmother taught me that.
She said, “Oh,” and laughed when I explained.
"Mom would have adored this place!" my mom said.
Lex practiced saying “handschuh” again (and again and again) as we bundled up at the hotel before our first outing.
We ventured out and meandered in and out of shops on Main Street, admiring the wares and decorations. Lex made friends along the way, saying “Hi!” to people as she felt inclined. Her unfettered friendliness fit right in. Locals and visitors alike were quick to offer greetings and smiles.
Frankenmuth Fudge Kitchen had our hearts from first waft as we walked by. Inside, we watched artists pour melted fudge onto marble slabs, work magic with a scraper, and integrate more happiness in the form of English Walnuts and Coconut Dough (we're talking German Chocolate… as fudge!). They sliced the cooled fudge into half-moon chunks of sweet joy. Lex’s face lit up when I placed a fudge-themed paper hat upon her head.
With treats for the road, we headed off to meet a steed for a carriage ride. The carriages were festively decorated with twinkling lights and garlands.
"It’s a horsey!" Lex called out. “What’s that sound? It’s songing!”
I smiled and let Lex’s coined term fly. We heard the sleigh bells and Christmas music as an arriving horse stepped up.
The half-hour ride was idyllic. We sat on the comfy seats snuggled under blankets, admiring decorations and learning fun anecdotes about the area. We simply enjoyed each other's company. It was an experience we could be fully content in—no one regrets making memories like these. We discussed favorite Christmas traditions and highlights, including Oma's. When Oma was a little kid, her dad left a strategically placed boot print in the snow for her to discover Christmas morning (and there was a rogue sleigh bell!) Oma just knew Santa was real then.
We thanked the driver and the horse for the enchanting ride and aimed ourselves toward food and beer at Frankenmuth Brewery. Lex had a small amount of Frankie's Root Bier—a delicious craft soda, and my mom and I split a Christmas Town Ale, which was effectively the holiday season turned into a beer, with spices including cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Of course, I broke out my German phrase for the occasion.
The beer brought Oma back into the conversation. We talked about the steins she collected, and the extremely potent eggnog she made with dozens of eggs, buckets of heavy cream and enough bourbon to fill a hot tub. Oma threw wonderful Christmas parties! I'll concede: if Oma were here, she would have pointed out it wasn't that much bourbon, but my mom and I were having a great time recalling the stories.
Early the next morning, I jogged off a few calories in the name of sightseeing. The town was quiet and frosty, which felt cozy to me. I forged my path by whim—inefficiently going here and there, following the river between winterized trees, admiring an inn up close, going through a park, and crossing the wooden covered bridge multiple times, just because. I appreciated every stride of it.
After regrouping, my mom, Lex and I went out for a breakfast that included smoothies and lattes at Harvest Coffeehouse. It occurred to me that my mom and I have spent a lot of time bonding over smoothies or lattes since I was a pre-teen. I liked that Lex’s initiation into the custom was in Frankenmuth—a place instantly steeped in tradition for us.
Once properly fueled, visiting the largest Christmas store in the world topped our day’s agenda. Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland was already bustling when we arrived. The Christmas tunes, dazzling lights and shimmering objects captivated us.
Lex started reporting on the scene. “That’s a tree. Those are Lex’s horses. That’s blue, and that’s—that’s a Santa!”
“Yes, but those aren’t horses—they’re reindeer!” I answered.
“Reindeer?” She tested. “They’re so cuuute!”
My mom laughed and said, “You’re so cute, Lex. Let’s explore!”
Walking the aisles of this 96,000-square-foot showroom felt like an immersion into Christmas as its own dimension. In toys, trinkets, cards, ornaments and other goodies, we saw the holiday across history, cultures and styles.
We spent hours browsing and collecting treasures while exchanging stories sparked by the displays. I had no doubt Oma would come into conversation in this wonderland, but I was stunned to almost literally find her childhood memory on a shelf. It was a Santa Evidence Kit.
A poem on the box explained its contents:
What have we here?
Looks like a clue!
Someone has visited. Yes, it’s true!
There are glasses, a glove
And a button
Some footprints and a bell
It was Santa and his reindeer
I just know it, I can tell!
I couldn’t believe it. It broke my heart that Oma never got to hold my daughter. But I’d be able to give Lex Oma’s favorite Christmas memory. Beyond a footprint and a sleigh bell, the kit included a handschuh!
I blinked away the moisture that wound up in my eyes, and showed my mom.
“Wow,” she said. That syllable seemed to encompass our entire Frankenmuth experience. We came here anticipating a magical visit, but had no idea how close to the heart it would be.