Carols at the Lighthouse, Candles in Your Hair — Celebrating the Holidays in Traverse City

Celebrating St. Lucia’s Day at the Grand Traverse Commons


It’s not easy wearing lighted candles on your head.

Nevertheless, every year in mid-December a young girl in a long white robe wanders the grounds of Traverse City’s former mental asylum delivering warm sweet rolls to holiday shoppers. And yes, in keeping with an old tradition, she wears a wreath of lighted candles in her hair in honor of St. Lucy, an early Christian martyr whose feast falls on Dec. 13.

It’s all part of the annual Santa Lucia Day in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, the unique residential/retail development  in what was once this Michigan town’s mental institution. Accompanied by flute music and carrying trays of fresh rolls from the local bakery, the young St. Lucy stand-in is one of the highlights of the holiday season in Traverse City.
Not so long ago the picturesque summer resort towns on Michigan’s northwestern coast pretty much emptied out after Labor Day, leaving the exhausted natives with lots of time on their hands to contemplate the prospect of another long, quiet winter. They responded by putting a great deal of energy and creativity in their holiday observances.

These days, thanks to a growing population and a thriving winter recreation industry, the Traverse City region is quite lively even in midwinter. Fortunately, many of the traditional celebrations are still going strong – and a few more have even been added.

Christmas preparations here start as early as October, when local churches, clubs and artist’s cooperatives begin staging the holiday arts and crafts fairs for which the region is justly famous. Several really good ones have already taken place – the annual fair at Trinity Lutheran Church was several weeks ago, and this past weekend was the Dennos Museum Center’s Holiday Art Fair and the craft sale at East Junior High.

But there’s still more to come. This coming Saturday, for instance, is the annual Dickens Christmas Arts & Crafts Bazaar at First Congregational Church and the 25th  Annual Immaculate Conception Craft Show. And on the following weekend, there’s  juried show held by ArtCenter Traverse City, the 5th  Annual Craft Fair  at Traverse City Christian Middle/High School, the Thistle & Thread Holiday Art Show at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center and the craft show at Christ the King parish in Acme.

Another great holiday art fair is the Dec. 1 “Merry Marketplace” at the Old Art Building in the village of Leland, where local artisans and growers offer fresh and dried holiday wreaths, jewelry, specialty foods, pottery, ornaments, cards and hand-knitted items.

Gift-buying plays a big part in most holiday preparations, and in Traverse City’s charming downtown district  they start the shopping season on Nov. 30 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. Downtown merchants have also cleverly devised separate men’s and women’s shopping nights that include refreshments and prize drawings. Similar fun events are held Nov. 23 in Leland and Glen Arbor (where you get special deals if you shop in your pajamas!) and Dec. 1-2 in Suttons Bay.

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 families who lived there in the early 20th century. The annual Christmas at the Lighthouse celebration is held this year on Dec. 2, and includes refreshments and entertainment by local musicians.

The Wellington Inn, all decked out for Christmas

One of Traverse City’s most charming Yuletide events is the annual “Inn at Christmastime” open house at the Wellington Inn, where local florists and artisans literally ‘deck the halls’ of this beautifully restored 1905 neoclassical mansion with a spectacular display of holiday designs and decorations. This year’s event will be held Dec. 9 and Dec. 16.

An entirely different kind of holiday tradition is on display at the History Center of Traverse City, housed in the former city library. It’s the annual Festival of Trains, a delightful event that attracts thousands of visitors each year to watch dozens of working model train layouts created and operated by local model train aficionados. This year’s festival will be Dec. 15 to Jan. 1.

Traverse City is an intensely musical community, thanks in part to the nearby presence of the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Each year, students and staff at Interlochen put on a holiday special for the community. This year’s Dec. 13-15 presentation is a traditional favorite —Coppelia, a lighthearted ballet about a feisty village girl, her fiancé and a mischievous toymaker’s clockwork doll.

The town’s ornate 19th century Opera House also puts on a full schedule of holiday music in December, from a Dec. 2 concert by the Celtic-influenced Canadian Leahy Family to a Dec. 5 program featuring the Empire Brass and special guest star Elisabeth Von Trapp — including a “Sound of Music” medley in which the guitar solo Edelweiss flows into an extraordinary rendition of Stille Nacht.

On the weekend of Dec. 8-9 the Traverse Symphony Orchestra presents its hugely popular “Home for the Holidays” concert, with conductor Robin Fountain leading performers and audience in a program of treasured Christmas classics, carols, medleys and holiday favorites.

New Year’s Eve isn’t forgotten here, either. For the past four 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.


About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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