By Joseph Hogan
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, chief executive of Bronner’s and one of nine family members associated with the company, stood next to the giant, smiling, rosy-cheeked head 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, Michigan, ships merchandise to every continent and is open 361 days a year. (It’s closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas.)
Some 2 million visitors come annually to peruse the goods at Bronner’s — which boasts the square footage of two football fields and markets itself 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.)
Wally Bronner, Wayne’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. Soon he started selling Christmas items year-round. “People thought he was kind of loopy,” his son said. But 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 decided they could attract tourists by emphasizing the town’s German heritage. “The town became Bavarianized,” Wayne said. They installed chaletlike facades on buildings and hosted 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.”
At the edge of the Bronner’s property sits a replica of the chapel in Austria where, in 1818, “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: Assamese, Pidgin, Cebuano, Javanese, Kebu, Nias, American Sign Language, Choctaw, Bhili, Dholuo and Rawang, to name a few.
Multinational takes on the holiday come through elsewhere at Bronner’s. 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 Bronner’s stockroom is like Santa’s North Pole, if Santa’s North Pole were a warehouse full of red-vested human employees.
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.
When he greeted me near the entrance of his office in late October, Wayne Bronner 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.”