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Have yourself a merry Bavarian Christmas in Frankenmuth, Mich.

A carriage rolls by the Alpine-style architecture on Main Street in Frankenmuth, Mich.
A carriage rolls by the Alpine-style architecture on Main Street in Frankenmuth, Mich. (Hilary Krieger)
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By Hilary Krieger
Sunday, December 13, 2009

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

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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.


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