You can hear gasps from along the parade route even over the impressive clomping, as four massive draft horses power down River Street with the precious cargo: a 30-plus-foot tree, specially selected from citizen nominations, fully decorated and standing upright as it skids its way down the snow-covered street.
The idea for a nonmotorized parade that features only clothing, vehicles and items seen on this street in the heyday of the Victorian Port City is just one that a Manistee “uniqueness committee” hatched three decades ago.
The Manistee Victorian Sleighbell Parade and Old Christmas Weekend marks its 30th anniversary Dec. 6-9, with a focus — as always — on the traditions that make it unique. For many years running, the same team of working Belgians has hauled the tree. Local architect Kendra Thompson will don her fur cape, her husband his best lumberjack flannel and, with friends, roast the chestnuts she’s provided free for sampling every year for the past 29 years. Alongside them, trombone players from around the state will gather to belt out Christmas tunes the Merry Trombones band way.
The Common Gentry Carriage Co. again will provide the free sleigh rides among downtown Victorian buildings before leaving to usher Santa down the parade route. And when the longtime Santa passed away, said event chairperson Rachel Brooks, he contacted his brother with a last request: that he take over so no kid is let down.
Such stories underscore the importance of event traditions, both for those who throw the annual Victorian Christmas Weekend party and those who attend, Brooks said. Merchants and volunteers dress in Victorian garb — and parade-goers sometimes do, too.
Kathryn Kenny, executive director of the Manistee County Visitors Bureau, said she wouldn’t miss her annual appearance in the bell choir, donning her showy Victorian red hat and period-perfect cloak. “It’s a Dickens experience,” she said. “Everyone’s happy, everyone’s smiling.”
While the parade is the centerpiece of the weekend, it’s not the only event in a weekend of craft shows and holiday performances, teas in lumber baron mansions and, this year, a celebration of Victorian Christmas traditions inside the Manistee County Historical Museum.
It all builds to the parade witnessed last year by a record crowd of 20,000, a parade in which onlookers are likely to catch some reindeer, bagpipers, a German organ player and maybe a local women’s group together forming a giant flag.
“Sometimes, the alpaca doesn’t want to move that minute, so you’ll have gaps,” Brooks warned, “but it’s all part of the charm. It’s a dark, almost quiet parade. And it’s just a magical experience to see those draft horses coming down the road as the snowflakes are coming down.”