Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store, will experience a bittersweet holiday season this year. That’s because its charismatic founder, Wally Bronner, succumbed to cancer on April 1, 2008. But the 500 employees that include many family members continue his passion for his favorite holiday.
The CHRISTmas Wonderland complex is situated on more than 40 acres in Frankenmuth, a town of 30,000 residents known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria. This dynamic German themed town receives more than three million visitors annually and Bronner’s is one of the main attractions.
The drive leading to the store is adorned with Christmas decorations on 50+ lamp posts year round. At dusk, thousands of twinkling lights illuminate a wonderland of outdoor decorations. The retail store covers seven acres under one continuous roof. Inside, visitors are dazzled with an inventory of more than 500 different types of nativity scenes from 59 nations, 350 decorated trees, 700 whimsical animated figures and 6,000 types of ornaments, many of which are unique to Bronner’s. Steins, plush animals, nutcrackers, Bibles, music boxes, dolls, stockings, garlands, wreaths, Santa suits and outdoor decorations of all types are all stocked here. There’s a wide selection of popular collectibles including Precious Moments, M. I. Hummel figurines, Christopher Radko, Seraphim Classic Angels, Cherished Teddies, Department 54 and Bradford Editions. Artists from these companies frequently hold special events. And when you go, don’t miss viewing Bronner’s personal collection of 1,000 Hummels and 1,700 Precious Moments figurines. If you can’t personally visit the shop, many items can be purchased online.
The story behind the business is as fascinating as the store itself. Born in 1927 in Frankenmuth, artistic Wally Bronner began painting local store windows while still in high school. After high school graduation in 1945, he started a sign painting business that included decorated parade floats and fair booths as well as window displays.
In 1951 he married Irene Pretzer and made his first outdoor decorations – Christmas panels for lampposts in neighboring Clare, Mich. The energetic young couple constructed their first building in downtown Frankenmuth in 1954. One side housed the sign painting office while the other side housed the Christmas decorations business.
The Bronners expanded their family to include four children as they expanded their business to several downtown locations. In 1977 they consolidated their business to one 45-acre site on the edge of town.
The Christmas decoration business grew so rapidly that Bronner sold the sign painting business in 1984. A 1991 building addition almost doubled the size of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland. In 2000 the shipping department was expanded. Another major expansion in 2002 brought Bronner’s total building size to five football fields. The Bronner’s are also credited with making their town a popular tourist attraction.
In 1976 Wally and Irene toured Austria. They visited the memorial chapel erected on the site of St. Nicholas Church where the carol Silent Night was written and first performed in 1818. Wally was so moved by what he experienced in that little chapel, he began planning a replica of the Silent Night chapel as part of his Wonderland.
“For several years I had pondered what I could do to tangibly express my gratitude to God for the way He had smiled upon our business,” Bronner remembered in an interview several years ago. “When the city government and visitor’s bureau of Oberndorf, Austria granted permission for us to replicate that beautiful chapel to scale, I knew I had found just the right means of giving glory to the Lord.”
Built in 1992, the Silent Night Chapel is located on the same property as the store. Visitors are welcome to visit for meditation and prayer. The lamp post-lit walkway leading up to the ornate little building is lined with plaques containing the lyrics to Silent Night in more than 300 languages. There’s a life size nativity set. The melody of the famous carol can be heard playing in the background. The serene chapel interior has a walk-through area where visitors can look through a glass divider to see a replica of the hand crocheted altar cloth in Oberndorf, a 19th century crucifix and a reproduction of the original musical score.
In 1998 Wally and Irene Bronner passed the business leadership on to their children. This freed Bronner for even more church and civic activities. Yet he continued to show up for work almost every day wearing his bright red blazer and green tie.
The company motto sums up Wally Bronner and the message he spread throughout his lifetime: “Enjoy CHRISTmas. It’s HIS birthday. Enjoy LIFE. It’s HIS way.”
Author’s note: My husband and I had the privilege of meeting Bronner in 2007. His enthusiasm for his Lord, his family and his community was evident throughout our conversation. My signed Wally Bronner doll is one of my most prized Christmas decorations.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland
25 Christmas Lane
Frankenmuth, Michigan 48734
AT A GLANCE:
• Bronner’s sells more than 1.3 million glass ornaments every year. In-store artists personalize about 100,000 of them.
• About two million people visit Bronner’s annually. The busiest time is Thanksgiving weekend when about 50,000 shoppers will descend on the store.
• Bronner’s is open 361 days a year. It closes on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
• Bronner’s electric bill averages $900 a day.