361 Days of Christmas

By Joseph Hogan

`Credit...Jarod Lew for The New York Times

Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, outside of Detroit, bills itself as the largest Christmas store in the world.

`Credit...Jarod Lew for The New York Times

Deep in the huge stockroom of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, a holiday supercenter about 80 miles north of Detroit, a man named Jason was assembling a 17-foot Santa. Each body part, painted bright red and black, hung from a hook in the ceiling like a cow carcass in a meat locker.

Wayne Bronner, 67, the chief executive of Bronner’s and one of nine family members associated with the company, stood next to the smiling, rosy-cheeked head — it was almost as tall as him — to explain that this model would be marketed through the commercial sales department.

So somebody was going to buy this 17-foot Santa?

“Oh, yes, definitely,” he said.

That Santa is just one example of the Christmas bounty available at Bronner’s. A major node of what might be called the Christmas industrial complex, the store, in Frankenmuth, Mich., ships merchandise to every continent. It provides countless props to Hollywood. And it is open 361 days a year.

ImageThe store is open every day of the year except for New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas.
The store is open every day of the year except for New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas.Credit...Jarod Lew for The New York Times

Some two million visitors come annually to peruse the gewgaws and trinkets at Bronner’s — which boasts the square footage of two football fields and is marketed as the biggest Christmas store in the world — in addition to 20-something surrounding acres of trumpeting angels, Christmas trees and wise men on camels. (Santa is everywhere but also, obviously, on the roof.)

“Oh gosh,” said Esther Reynolds, who had driven three hours from Fostoria, Ohio, with her friend Phyllis Chaney to visit. “I’ve been coming here since way back when, probably the ’90s.” The pair was shopping for Ms. Reynolds’s “great new grandbaby,” for whom they had collected, “a Christmas baby book, some nutcrackers and an Ohio State ornament.” Ms. Chaney was also getting ornaments for her children and her children’s children — “and my son has three new pets,” she said, “so I got each of them one.”

Wally Bronner, Wayne Bronner’s father, entered the Christmas business in 1945, seven years before Wayne was born. He had been working as a sign painter and was asked to prepare some Christmas panels for a nearby town. The work was admired, so Wally started selling Christmas items year-round. “People thought he was kind of loopy,” Wayne said. Nevertheless, the business grew. In 1954, he opened a salesroom, and then in 1966 and 1971, two more.

Around the same time, some business leaders in Frankenmuth, Wally included, decided they could attract tourists by emphasizing the town’s German heritage. “The town became Bavarianized,” Wayne recalled. They installed chalet-like facades on buildings and hosted large German-themed festivals. Other residents followed suit and now the town is something like a Bavarian amusement park, a kitsch German-American response to Colonial Williamsburg. It’s very merry and bright.

“People like Christmas all year long,” Wayne said. “There’s nothing negative with Christmas. It’s all about family and friends and the love of Jesus Christ.”

I asked if Christmas was ever ruined for him as a kid, having to mix it with business and tourism year-round. “It was desensitizing, yes,” he said. But he has a lot of good memories, like using a life-size fiberglass Nativity set as cover in games of hide-and-seek. “It was a great place to hide, behind the ox,” he said. And, ultimately, he learned to recognize the inherent business potential of the holiday.

The store’s logo capitalizes each letter of “Christ” in “Christmas.” Its official motto is “Enjoy CHRISTmas, it’s HIS Birthday; Enjoy LIFE, it’s HIS Way.” And despite the fact that Bronner’s sells “many more Santa Clauses and snowmen and elves than religious items,” as Wayne put it, the store’s mission, it seems, is to reinforce the reason for the season. “We’ve always maintained that the Christmas celebration is about the birth of Christ, so there’s no secret,” he said.

Above the sales floor is a mural that sums up perfectly the aesthetic he has honed: Santa kneeling before the newly born baby Jesus.

No part of Bronner’s better exemplifies the store’s core values than the “Silent Night” chapel. Constructed in 1992 at the edge of the Bronner’s property, the structure is an exact replica of the Silent Night Chapel in Obendorf, Austria, which is, itself, a commemorative chapel, built on the site of the old St. Nicholas church, where, in 1818, the song “Silent Night” was first performed. The walk up to the replica chapel at Bronner’s is a celebration of Christian internationalism. As “Silent Night” plays softly over loudspeakers, guests pass plaques featuring the lyrics to the song in various languages. On one plaque: Assamese, Pidgin, Cebuano, Javanese, Kebu and Nias. On another: American Sign Language, Choctaw, Bhili, Dholuo and Rawang.

It’s not the only thing giving Bronner’s a kind of “Joy to the World” aura. At each entrance are welcome brochures in numerous languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese. Bronner’s also throws internationally-themed Christmas parties for its staffers so they can “develop the knowledge of different international methods of celebrating Christmas,” Wayne said.

The store’s stock, displays and employee parties often emphasize international Christmas traditions.Credit...Jarod Lew for The New York Times
Honestly, Santa could probably use a vacation.Credit...Jarod Lew for The New York Times

The Bronner’s stock room is like Santa’s North Pole, if Santa’s North Pole were a warehouse, and Wayne Bronner, in his bright red suit, is like Santa if Santa were a small-town Midwestern businessman.

As red-vested staffers prepared orders for shipment, Wayne walked briskly by, addressing each one brightly by name like the mayor in a Hallmark movie. “Hi, Andy!” “Hi, Kathleen!”

In one section of the stock room, rows and rows of staffers personalized little ornaments by painting messages on request. One staffer, Cathy, was working on a gingerbread-colored cat ornament. “What’s his name, Cathy?” Wayne asked. “Stan,” she said, “Stan the Cat.” Another staffer worked on an ornament that looked like a basketball backboard. The personalized note read: “Jenna, 2020.”

Despite the traditional look of Bronner’s, the company must keep up with the latest trends. In June, Bronner’s started selling Bob Ross ornaments, and they’ve flown off the shelves. Particular animals trend, too. Four years ago, Wayne said, owls were huge. Now, it’s sloths.

He chuckled warmly at the thought of those cute, slovenly beasts who have nothing to do with Christmas. He’s been in this business for practically a lifetime. He’s seen trends come and go.

But Wayne is certainly not jaded. When he greeted me near the entrance of his office in late October, he said, “Welcome, and happy 58 days until Christmas.” We shook hands, and, almost flustered, he corrected himself: “No, it’s 57 days until Christmas. Fifty-seven.”

Running a Christmas-specific retail business has been, for the most part, an uncontroversial occupation for Wayne. But there was that time, in 2014, when he donated a life-size Nativity to a Michigan lawmaker to put up near the state capitol. It was a response to a “Snaketivity” scene that had been erected by a group of “Satanists” from Detroit; their sculpture — of a snake wrapped around a cross, a book coiled in its tail — was a free speech statement.

At the time, Wayne told the The Lansing State Journal that he fought back with his own Nativity because “Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus Christ, there’s no denying it,” and added, “It’s really sad, as I think back to when I was a child, these kinds of issues didn’t come up.”

I asked Wayne if he feels sad about the state of Christmas today. “No, no, that was just a flash in the pan,” he said.

And did he agree with the conservative refrain that there was a war on Christmas? He smiled and shook his head. “No. Just look at all the people who come to Bronner’s.”