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Have yourself a merry Bavarian Christmas in Frankenmuth, Mich.

By Hilary Krieger
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Willkommen to Frankenmuth, a.k.a. "Michigan's Little Bavaria."

Here, McDonald's advertises an indoor play "platz" rather than a playground, a storefront proudly boasts of "Michigan's largest display of sausage," and the official tourist Web site includes a tab for "gnomes" -- a breed of small forest creatures that don't actually exist.

It's also a place where, come October, Main Street is festooned with fir bunting and life-size biblical figures, where sweet scents conjuring visions of sugar plums waft through the air, and where the main attraction is a massive Christmas emporium that spends $900 a day on electricity to keep its half-mile-long light extravaganza aglow.

In other words, it might well be the most spectacularly splashy Christmas destination this side of the North Pole. Coming from a family that trolled neighborhoods for the most blinding displays of the Christmas spirit, that sounded delightful to me. And I'm not alone -- 3 million to 4 million annual visitors attracted by a Bavarian Christmas, or Bavarian Christmas kitsch, make the town 100 miles north of Detroit one of Michigan's top spots for tourism.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by the metallic chime of the authentic German glockenspiel housed in the bell tower of the Bavarian Inn of Frankenmuth. There, seven times a day, the Pied Piper of Hamelin and assorted painted wooden characters parade to music and narration, first in English and then in German.

Inside the inn, which manages to combine the style of both a Swiss chalet and Neuschwanstein Castle, the music continued, thanks to a feather-capped accordion player who serenaded me while I supped on Bavarian delicacies proffered by bonneted barmaids.

Not content to merely consume Wunderbar sandwiches and the inn's own root beer concoction in the roof garten, I roamed through racks of embroidered-leather lederhosen and a "Chillin' with my Gnomies" garden fixture arrangement in the lodge's byzantine shopping arcade until I came to the place that puts the kitsch in kitchen. There, in the lodge's cooking facility, a young aproned woman showed me how to roll and shape my own pretzel, all the while telling an admittedly apocryphal story of how a German monk invented the twisted snack to teach poor children how to read.

At the nearby historical museum, with its more factual accounts, I discovered that Frankenmuth came upon its enthusiasm for all things German honestly enough. The name, meaning "courage of the Franconians," was bestowed by a Bavarian pastor who dispatched Lutheran missionaries from the Franconia province in 1844 to populate the area and convert the Native Americans.

Many of Frankenmuth's 4,900 inhabitants still trace their roots back to this early settlement, and the city long continued with distinctive traditions such as Weihnachtsbaum (decorating the family Christmas tree in private and hiding it until Christmas Eve) and Pelzenickel (a Santalike visitor stopping at homes before Christmas to grill children on whether they'd been naughty or nice).

The museum warmly recalls this history -- maintaining its positive tone even when covering the conversion of Native Americans and the town's penchant for befriending German POWs during World War II -- but acknowledges the extent to which these origins have been embellished for the benefit of the tourist industry. In one of its final exhibits, it notes that the city's quaint Alpine-style architecture first appeared in 1957.

Outdoors, I turned to a true 19th-century relic: a horse-drawn carriage ride. But the quarter-hour amble dwelled too much in the parking lot for a true historical escape, though it did afford a nice view of the town's covered bridge, the river and sweeping Nativity scenes.

Disembarking to stroll the streets on my own, I passed up Main Street shops where I could watch fudge, wool, sausage and cheese being made to observe the creation of my preferred product: beer. At the Frankenmuth Brewing Co., begun in 1862 and restored in 2003 after a devastating tornado, a waiter led me on a personal tour of the facilities. Then I got to enjoy the excellent results, as well as the delicious bourbon chili, at the bar inside.

The real Frankenmuth culinary draw, though, are its "world famous" chicken dinners. Generally any place that needs to inform passersby that it's internationally renowned probably isn't, but Zehnder's restaurant seemed justified in its hype, given the overwhelming lines filling its Victorian entry hall at all hours of the day. (The Bavarian Inn's were slightly shorter, but both places strongly recommend reservations.)

Those who stuck out the one- to two-hour wait were rewarded with family-style chicken dinners featuring endless supplies of creamy cabbage salad, cottage cheese, seasonal relish and, of course, Frankenmuth Golden Fried Chicken.

Stuffed like a Christmas turkey, I chose to go with the eye candy of Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland for dessert. The self-described largest Christmas store in the world pushes its credentials with a list of celebrity visits (Laura Bush, Dorothy Hamill, Maria von Trapp), with a special mention of the order that John Wayne placed, albeit by phone, for a Santa suit back in 1976.

Inside, I was regaled by 6,000 styles of ornaments, 500 types of Nativity scenes and more than 150 kinds of nutcrackers -- nutcrackers! -- for sale, while about 350 decorated Christmas trees and 100,000 individual lights illuminated the salesroom. Talk about blinding.

And Bronner's offers spiritual as well as material sustenance; it has painstakingly replicated the Silent Night Memorial Chapel of Oberndorf, Austria, where the carol was first sung. The chapel plays it continuously for customers who stop by on their way in or out of the shopping complex, though perhaps the lyrics of "We three kings of Orient are/Bearing gifts we traverse afar" might be more on topic.

Either way, it's clear that while Santa Claus might be coming to a town near you soon, in Frankenmuth he has already arrived.

Krieger is a Washington freelance writer.

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