Every year in December, City Pulse faces the challenge of coming up with a fresh holiday story. This one, which begins, “I took a Jew to Frankenmuth,” is definitely not a cliché.
I took a Jew to Frankenmuth, Mich., to find out what Christmas in America is all about.
Some say consumerism and spirituality are incompatible, but that's an anti-capitalist crock. At Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland, the world's biggest Christmas-themed store, Yuletide pilgrims find themselves invoking the Lord more often and fervently than at any time in their lives. Cohen and I certainly did.
So soulful, so spiritual is this five-acre banquet of consumer goods that people are sometimes inspired to testify right in the aisles. "Thirty-five dollars?" I saw a woman exclaim while holding a tiny ceramic angel blowing a trumpet. "Holy Christ!"
I saw another man get religion in front of a 3-foot-tall, boot-shaped tankard elaborately decorated in the Austrian style.
"We're getting this for Lou," said the man's wife. "Today."
"Jesus," said the man, looking at the $600 tag.
The Bronner's compound sprawls across 45 tinsel-wired acres on the outskirts of Tyrolean-themed Frankenmuth, drawing tourists from all over the world. I thought my friend — I call him Cohen, because that's his name — would be an anchor, a bulwark, a commonsense reality check on what promised to be a trying journey.
He held up bravely, poor man, but in the end it almost killed him.
"This looks like the German camp they blew up at the end of ‘The Dirty Dozen,'" Cohen said as we drove along the perimeter of the grounds, past alpine rooftops, sentrylike Santas and overhead archways of lights.
I knew he was just trying to keep our spirits up. It made me glad I brought him, but worried about whether he'd stick with the mission to the end.
As Cohen and I explored this labyrinth of graven images large and small, the line between the secular and the sacred didn't just blur — it did a screaming, strobelit can-can. The off-the-scale excess of Bronner's gives new meaning to the phrase "seeing the light." The store's electric bill, boasts its Web site, averages $900 a day. There are 350 fully decorated Christmas trees inside. Each year, 2 million people buy 530 miles of lighting cord there.
Whenever Cohen disappeared, I knew to look for the nearest secular display. Sure enough, he was standing by a showcase of Swiss Army knives, wiping his brow. "I've gotta bail out," he said. "I'll wait for you at the West Exit. Just write, ‘As my friend lay mortally wounded, he urged me to press on.'"
But it was no fun without him. I tried to observe more, but all I heard was grousing from people who had been breathing stale tinsel too long with too many other people.
"You have to get into single file, dear."
"Shit, honey! This is where we came in."
"No, Colin, Batman's not here."
"Move around them, dammit" (this last from a man in a wheelchair to his wife).
I grabbed a tiny ice-cube-with-a-face ornament (for my sister) from a rack marked "real acrylic ice cubes" and headed to the nearest checkout, the South Exit. I figured I'd walk around the building from the south to the west doors, enjoying some air in the process.
Twenty-five minutes later, I found Cohen. "You walked all the way around?" he snorted. "That's like Magellan saying ‘I'll just pop around the Cape.'" He could tell I was exhausted. "You better wait here while I get the car."
"What's the speed limit here?" Cohen asked as we hit I-75. "I'm gonna kiss the Genesee County line." I had never seen him quite like this, and began to wonder whether I'd asked too much of our friendship.
It was a quiet decompression dinner at the Peanut Barrel. Things between us really didn't get back to normal until I told Cohen what happened to me on the way from the south to the west door. It's a huge building, I explained, and every time you turn a corner there's another corner, and I'd had a lot of coffee that morning, and there was no way to get back in the building… "Let's go back," said Cohen, rubbing his eyes with laughter. "I wanna see that tree."
"Really?" "Oh, Jesus, no."