Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade Old Christmas Weekend is the highlight of a Northern Michigan vacation at the holidays. But you don’t have to be on vacation to love it. Proof?Fresh off a move to Northern Michigan from Chicago, Catherine Zaring and her husband decided to check out their new town’s holiday winter attraction… and were blown away by what they saw at the Manistee Victorian Sleighbell Parade Old Christmas Weekend. “I’m standing there, watching the parade go by and all of these horses, and I looked at my husband and said, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t think they know how big this is.
Nine years later, Zaring became more than simply an awestruck spectator of Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade Old Christmas Weekend—she became co-chair with Rachel Estabrook of the event that draws upward of 10,000 people to the Northern Michigan town’s historical downtown each December. The festival marked its 25th year in 2013 and continues to deliver “the wonder of Christmas gone by.” Zaring, who is among many who dress in Victorian costume throughout the weekend, tells us more about this wintry tradition along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Why the Victorian theme for Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade Old Christmas Weekend?
Our downtown is so full of Victorian architecture. It’s good to preserve that history and to bring the Victorian era to life at least for a few days. Our downtown is just looking beautiful, and we’re pretty proud of that.
And so the festival really celebrates this pre-1901 time period …
Yes, we try to keep it within the Victorian era. It’s horse-drawn carriages and people in period costumes … I always say we’re kind of like Disneyland, the old Disneyland, on the Northern Michigan shores of Lake Michigan. In the daytime, you think, Oh, this is cool. And then when evening comes, when you’re strolling downtown, you could be stepping back in time. If there’s a light snow falling, it’s just magical. We have people on Saturday all afternoon strolling around and dressed in period costume. I wear a bonnet and black cape I made. I have a basket with candy canes in it, and any kid who says Merry Christmas gets a candy cane.
What’s your highlight?
My favorite part of Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade Old Christmas Weekend is when the Northern Michigan Christmas tree comes down the street, standing upright. It’s 25 feet tall, pulled by horses. We’ve had hemlock, blue spruce, white pine, short needle, long needle, and any kind of evergreen. They all have lights on them and go along the parade route to the marina. People follow along behind the tree, and last year we had a fireworks show. It was lovely, all silver and gold. It always depends upon the wind, but we’re planning on doing that again.
What else can we expect to experience at Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade Old Christmas Weekend?
We have carriage rides that the festival provides free—this year we’ll have two carriages. The merchants dress up, there’s a soup cook-off that’s been very popular. The Manistee Civic Players have a seasonal play, and this year it’s a musical rendition of It’s a Wonderful Life. We have a Victorian dessert concert, a festival of trees that is absolutely gorgeous. There’s a huge craft show … It’s just a place out of time. I think that’s the best way to put it. Everybody loves Mackinac Island. For that weekend, I think we top Mackinac.
What’s special for the 25th?
We talked about doing ornaments and all different kinds of things, but it’s unique enough as it is—you don’t have to do anything special for any one year. We’re just happy to have it in existence for 25 years. I met one lady last year who flew here from California to see this festival.