Escape the bustle

Small towns offer a slower-paced holiday scene.
Manistee Victorian Sleighbell Parade Todd Reed
Manistee Victorian Sleighbell Parade - Courtesy Todd Reed

Step back in time to the sounds and sights of the past: the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the voices of carolers and piping of bagpipers strolling the streets where downtown business owners are dressed in elegant Victorian attire — Dec. 3-6 is Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend. 

Like many old-fashioned holiday events across the state, the Manistee community comes together for a festive celebration that transports the riverfront town back to its boomtown days.

Now in its 27th year, the annual weekend is a chance to experience Victorian life and one of Michigan’s most unique holiday celebrations. Festivities include a Festival of Trees, home tours, concerts and plays, museum exhibits and shopping in the historic downtown area. 

The main attraction is the Victorian Sleighbell Parade Dec. 5, featuring horse-drawn entries, community groups, and bagpipers and carolers. A 30-foot Christmas tree pulled by draft horses glides down River Street at dusk, followed by fireworks.

“There are no motorized vehicles in the parade,” says Rachel Brooks, event chairwoman. “We will have live reindeer for petting before the parade. We get about 10,000 people that attend (over the weekend).”

Other events include “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” at the historic Ramsdell Theatre, a Christmas tea in the third-floor ballroom of the Buckley Home, and tours of the James Dempsey mansion, an 1894 lumber baron’s house. 

A Lilliputian Christmas, an exhibit honoring the area’s German heritage with exhibits of traditions, decorations, dollhouses, toys and trains, will be on display at Manistee County Historical Museum.  

Not only is the Dickens Festival Holly’s largest, it’s also one of the longest-running, Dickens-themed festivals in the country. This marks its 42nd year, and the epicenter of activities will be the traditional Battle Alley in Holly’s historic district. 

Dow Gardens
Dow Gardens -Photography Courtesy Jerry Meier

For 2015, the festival will span three weekends: Nov. 27-29, Dec. 5-6 and Dec. 12-13. It kicks off with a lighted parade at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 27. Immediately following the parade, Santa Claus will arrive for the traditional tree-lighting ceremony.

The festival nearly folded after its 40th year, but a group of community volunteers came together to revive the festival and make it bigger and better, says George Kullis, the festival’s volunteer director. 

Each weekend features Dickens re-enactors and performances, music and caroling, horse-drawn carriage rides and more. There’s also a sled hill, the Tiny Tim’s Children’s Tent and a pub tent — true English-style merriment.

Performances of “A Christmas Carol” are offered on an outdoor stage and involve local schoolchildren in the production. 

“This is all outside and free to the public,” Kullis says. “It’s a lot of fun. You feel like you are back in England, and it’s a family thing. It introduces the younger generations to Dickens, to the old-fashioned Christmas and those family values.”

Midland’s Holly Jolly Days Dec. 5-6 and 12-13 are an annual holiday tradition with horse-drawn carriage rides, Santa’s House, strolling carolers, free hot cocoa, holiday shopping and other festivities. 

Midland’s Dow Gardens is another unique holiday attraction offering free Christmas Walks as a gift to the community. 

Open year-round, the 110-acre property hosts the walks 5-7:30 p.m. Dec. 10-12, with silent nights (no music) Dec. 18-19. Visitors can explore the winter gardens along candlelit pathways and revel in one of northeast Michigan’s most unique natural displays. Other festivities include local groups performing holiday carols, spotlighted trees and bridges, and the chance to meet Santa’s reindeer Dec. 10-11. — Marla R. Miller

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