Santa Lucia Day in the Village at Grand Traverse CommonsBy MIKE NORTON
TRAVERSE CITY, MI — There was a time when this resort town on Michigan’s northwest coast slowed almost to a stop in wintertime. Not anymore.
These days, Traverse City fairly bustles with winter shoppers and merrymakers. Weary of looking at the same merchandise in the same Big Box stores, visitors are increasingly choosing to do their holiday adventuring in this community’s charming boutiques, shops and galleries.
Christmas preparations in Traverse City start in autumn, when local churches, clubs and artist’s cooperatives begin staging the holiday arts and crafts fairs for which the region is justly famous. By December, it’s hard to find a weekend without some event that brings crowds of shoppers into downtown Traverse City. The town’s shopping season starts officially on Dec. 5 with a big outdoor extravaganza that involves carol-singing, the lighting of the community Christmas tree, and the arrival of Santa Claus on a bright red antique fire engine.
Nearby, a fascinating holiday tradition takes place each Dec. 13 in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a unique retail/residential district on the site of Traverse City’s former mental asylum. Serenaded by an ensemble of flutes, a young girl in a long white robe and a crown of lighted candles, wanders the grounds delivering warm sweet rolls to holiday shoppers. It’s all part of the village’s Santa Lucia Day, which also includes refreshments, special prices and free horse-drawn carriage rides — a uniquely picturesque experience of Christmas past.
Just as popular with visitors are the late-night shopping sprees held in Traverse City’s downtown: a Dec. 11Ladies Night, followed by a Dec. 18 Men’s Night, all featuring entertainment, food and drink specials in addition to the usual in-store sales.
The same lovingly organized holiday shopping activities are organized in nearby villages like Suttons Bay, which holds a three-day Holiday Festival Dec. 5-7 that includes a nighttime stroll down luminaria-lined streets with refreshments, hors d’oeuvres, local wines, restaurant specials and over 50 decorated trees, as well as a tree-lighting and carol sing. Nearby Leland has a festival of its own — the Holiday Wonderland — on Dec. 13.
Exciting as the shopping may be, it’s only part of this charming area’s holiday celebrations. Thanks to a growing population and a thriving winter recreation industry, many of the area’s traditional holiday observances are still going strong – and a few more have even been added in recent years.
December is also a splendid time to enjoy some of Traverse City’s fabled cuisine. Thanks to its award-winning wines and talented local chefs, the community now enjoys an international reputation as a place of surprisingly sophisticated food and drink. And what could go better with all this culinary bounty than a fine wine? Traverse City’s vineyards are known for their crisp, intensely flavorful wines, and the local beer (15 microbreweries and counting!) is also taking prizes on every side.
Traverse City is also one of America’s most charming “art towns,” with dozens of galleries, studios and museums, two symphony orchestras, two theatre companies and a vibrant club scene. And with the world-famous Interlochen Center for the Arts just down the road, there’s music, dance and drama from some of the world’s most talented performers.
In fact, every winter students and staff at Interlochen put on a holiday ballet special for the community. This year’s Dec. 11-13 presentation is a traditional favorite – Tschaikovsky’s beloved Sleeping Beauty — and onDec. 18, the Academy Band and Choir presents its annual “Sounds of the Season” concert.
Each year, residents of the village of Northport, near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, decorate the Grand Traverse Lighthouse for Christmas as it was celebrated by the Coast Guard families who lived there in the early 20th century. The annual “Christmas at the Lighthouse” celebration is held this year on Dec. 6-7, and includes refreshments and entertainment by local musicians. On Dec. 14, the village has its own annual Christmas Concert, one of the most treasured in the area.
On Dec. 6, Traverse City’s ornate 19th century Opera House features the retro quintet Five By Design in “Radio Holly Days,” a revue of classic Christmas favorites from the Golden Age of radio, built around a live radio drama — complete with sound effects.
On the weekend of Dec. 13-14 the Traverse Symphony Orchestra presents its hugely popular “Home for the Holidays” concert at Lars Hockstad Auditorium, with guest conductor Robin Fountain leading the Grand Traverse Chorale and Children’s Choir — as well as the audience — in a program of treasured Christmas classics, carols, medleys and holiday favorites.
A different sort of musical event is held Dec. 19 at the Left Foot Charley Winery in Traverse City. It’s “Unsilent Night,” a free “participatory sound sculpture” in which attendees participate by bringing their own boom boxes, laptops, iPhones, iPads and other portable music devices and create a “roving swarm” of sounds as they wander the grounds.
New Year’s Eve isn’t forgotten here, either. For the past five years, hundreds of people have gathered for the annual “CherryT Ball Drop”, a three-hour “street party for charity” that culminates with the lowering of a large illuminated cherry over downtown Traverse City. It’s a family-friendly event where attendees pay their admission by bringing donated items for local food banks.
To learn more about other winter attractions and events in the Traverse City area – and for a complete listing of lodging and dining options – contact Traverse City Tourism at 1-800-TRAVERSE or on line at www.TraverseCity.com