deep in the massive stockroom of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, a vacation supercenter roughly 80 km north of Detroit, a guy named Jason was building a 17-foot Santa. Each body area, painted bright red and black, hung from a hook in the ceiling such as a cow carcass in a meat locker.
Wayne Bronner, 67, the chief executive of Bronner’s and among nine family members linked to the business, stood alongside the grinning, rosy-cheeked mind — it was nearly as tall as him to describe this version could be promoted through the industrial sales department.
So someone will purchase this 17-foot Santa?
“Oh, yes, definitely,” he explained.
This Santa is only 1 example of this Christmas bounty available at Bronner’s. A significant node of what could be known as the Christmas industrial complex, the shop, in Frankenmuth, Mich., ships product to each continent. It gives millions of props to Hollywood. And it’s available 361 times per year.
Some 2 million people come annually to examine the gewgaws and trinkets in Bronner’s — that boasts the square footage of 2 soccer fields and can be marketed as the largest Christmas shop on the planet — along with 20-some thing encompassing acres of trumpeting angels, Christmas trees and wise men on camels. (Santa is anywhere but also, of course, on the roof)
“Oh gosh,” explained Esther Reynolds, that had driven three hours out of Fostoria, Ohio, together with her friend Phyllis Chaney to see. “I have been coming here since way back when, likely the’90s.” The group was searching for Ms. Reynolds’s”new grandbaby,” for whom they’d accumulated,”a Christmas baby publication, a few nutcrackers and also an Ohio State decoration” Ms. Chaney was getting decorations for her children and her children’s children –“and my kid has three new pets,” she explained,”so that I got every one of them ”
Wally Bronner, Wayne Bronner’s dad, entered the Christmas company in 1945, seven decades prior to Wayne was born. He was employed as a sign painter and has been requested to prepare some Christmas panels to get a nearby city. The job was honored, so Wally began selling Christmas items yearlong. “People thought he was sort of loopy,” Wayne explained. Nonetheless, the business grew. In 1954, he started a salesroom, then in 1966 and 1971, just two .
Around the Exact Same time, some business leaders at Frankenmuth, Wally comprised, determined they could attract tourists by emphasizing the town’s German heritage. “The town became Bavarianized,” Wayne recalled. They installed chalet-like facades on buildings and hosted large 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.”
I asked if Christmas was ever ruined for him as a kid, having to mix it with business and tourism year-round. “It was desensitizing, yes,” he said. But he has a lot of good memories, like using a life-size fiberglass Nativity set as cover in games of hide-and-seek. “It was a great place to hide, behind the ox,” he said. And, ultimately, he learned to recognize the inherent business potential of the holiday.
The store’s logo capitalizes each letter of “Christ” in “Christmas.” Its official motto is “Enjoy CHRISTmas, it’s HIS Birthday; Enjoy LIFE, it’s HIS Way.” And despite the fact that Bronner’s sells “many more Santa Clauses and snowmen and elves than religious items,” as Wayne put it, the store’s mission, it seems, is to reinforce the reason for the season. “We’ve always maintained that the Christmas celebration is about the birth of Christ, so there’s no secret,” he said.
Above the sales floor is a mural that sums up perfectly the aesthetic he has honed: Santa kneeling before the newly born baby Jesus.
No part of Bronner’s better exemplifies the store’s core values than the “Silent Night” chapel. Constructed in 1992 at the edge of the Bronner’s property, the structure is an exact replica of the Silent Night Chapel in Obendorf, Austria, which is, itself, a commemorative chapel, built on the site of the old St. Nicholas church, where, in 1818, the song “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. On one plaque: Assamese, Pidgin, Cebuano, Javanese, Kebu and Nias. On another: American Sign Language, Choctaw, Bhili, Dholuo and Rawang.
It’s not the only thing giving Bronner’s a kind of “Joy to the World” aura. 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 Christmas Countdown
The Bronner’s stock room is like Santa’s North Pole, if Santa’s North Pole were a warehouse, and Wayne Bronner, in his bright red suit, is like Santa if Santa were a small-town Midwestern businessman.
As red-vested staffers prepared orders for shipment, Wayne walked briskly by, addressing each one brightly by name like the mayor in a Hallmark movie. “Hi, Andy!” “Hi, Kathleen!”
In one section of the stock room, rows and rows of staffers personalized little ornaments by painting messages on request. One staffer, Cathy, was working on a gingerbread-colored cat ornament. “What’s his name, Cathy?” Wayne asked. “Stan,” she said, “Stan the Cat.” Another staffer worked on an ornament that looked like a basketball backboard. The personalized note read: “Jenna, 2020.”
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. Particular animals trend, too. Four years ago, Wayne said, owls were huge. Now, it’s sloths.
He chuckled warmly at the thought of those cute, slovenly beasts who have nothing to do with Christmas. He’s been in this business for practically a lifetime. He’s seen trends come and go.
But Wayne is certainly not jaded. When he greeted me near the entrance of his office in late October, he 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.”
Running a Christmas-specific retail business has been, for the most part, an uncontroversial occupation for Wayne. But there was that time, in 2014, when he donated a life-size Nativity to a Michigan lawmaker to put up near the state capitol. It was a response to a “Snaketivity” scene that had been erected by a group of “Satanists” from Detroit; their sculpture — of a snake wrapped around a cross, a book coiled in its tail — was a free speech statement.
At the time, Wayne told the The Lansing State Journal that he fought back with his own Nativity because “Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus Christ, there’s no denying it,” and added, “It’s really sad, as I think back to when I was a child, these kinds of issues didn’t come up.”
I asked Wayne if he feels sad about the state of Christmas today. “No, no, that was just a flash in the pan,” he said.
And did he agree with the conservative refrain that there was a war on Christmas? He smiled and shook his head. “No. Just look at all the people who come to Bronner’s.”