On one magical evening in Manistee, the spirit of Christmas comes alive. Don’t miss the annual Victorian Sleighbell Parade (Dec. 2, 2023).

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

It’s a last-minute decision, one we’ve been tempted to make for several years now: To go to Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade during the Old Christmas Weekend. The annual event is legendary—everyone who has seen it insists their friends go the following year. Finally, I’m taking my husband, Tim, to see it for ourselves.

When the two of us arrive, the entire town is buzzing. There are women in flowing, full-length dresses, their wide skirts parting the crowd as they walk. Draft horses breathe white streams of mist into the biting air and vendors roasting chestnuts line the sidewalks.

We walk along River Street and take it in with wonder.

The temp is bitter, maybe zero degrees, but it doesn’t matter. Every year about 10,000 people descend on the city of Manistee to enjoy the charm of an old Victorian Christmas in any weather. Families gather together for warmth; kids climb on dads’ shoulders in Christmas PJs and winter coats and teenagers perk up to see what the hubbub is all about.
We run into friends from home, Kerry and Nathan. “You finally came! You’ll love it!” This is the refrain of everyone who’s been.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Manistee County Visitors Bureau

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The parade is a culmination of Manistee’s biggest to-do—a four-day celebration of its 150-year history—with dozens of events. Tonight is everyone’s favorite. My husband and I tuck in next to a brick wall, a windbreak. The crowd holds still as one, on tiptoe, watching and waiting.

Finally, it’s time. The parade is starting. Ladies and gentlemen in Victorian dress walk by, then a group of golden retrievers with their owners decked in suits and top hats; bands, stilt walkers, an organ grinder. There are some 30 floats in all. The parade adheres to its tradition of no vehicles—only horse-drawn carriages are allowed.

What we are all eagerly awaiting, however, is the arrival of the tree. First comes the sound of Belgian draft horses’ dinner plate–size hooves; then their steaming breath and the ripple of their muscles as they haul a 30-foot Christmas tree, upright, on a sleigh. The crowd is quiet, in reverence, as it passes. Then a cheer goes up and suddenly thousands of people are streaming toward us, all falling into step behind the tree. It’s tradition— everyone is headed down to the end of River Street, to gather and light the tree together, with caroling and fireworks to finish the evening.

It’s a perfect winter night—roasted chestnuts, Christmas cheer, bad caroling, told-you-so friends. We’ll be back.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Attend This Year’s Old Christmas Weekend in Manistee

Enjoy activities for kids and all ages, as well as specials at area businesses during the four-day celebration. For a complete schedule of events, head to the Manistee Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend website.

Canfield House Bed & Breakfast

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Stay & Play in Manistee All Old Christmas Weekend Long

Where to Stay in Manistee

The Ramsdell Inn | In the heart of downtown sits The Ramsdell Inn, a historic boutique hotel and home to cozy JT’s Pub. This inn is directly on the parade route, and the 1891 victorian architecture, stained glass windows and elaborately carved woodwork are a perfect backdrop for the festivities.

The Dempsey Manor | The Dempsey Manor, a.k.a the “Queen of Manistee” is the largest victorian home in town. Expect period-decorated rooms with stitched quilts, richly upholstered chairs, antique bedroom furniture and original hand-carved wood-and-tile fireplaces. Plus, enjoy its two resident “parlor cats,” Abigail and Blanche.

The Canfield House | This renovated 1900s cottage was once owned by lumber baron Charles Canfield. It sits between lake Michigan and Portage Lake, offering gorgeous views. If you’re lucky, you’ll be served their homemade sausage-and-cranberry quiche for breakfast.

Canfield House Bed & Breakfast

Photo by Canfield House Bed & Breakfast

Where to Eat in Manistee During Your Stay

Blue Fish Kitchen + Bar | Perched on the Manistee channel downtown, Blue Fish offers a well-rounded menu of farm-to-table and artisan eats, craft beer and great lakes fish. Reservations are encouraged.

Photo by Dave Weidner

North Channel Brewing Co. | North Channel Brewing in the historic North Channel Building is right next to the Manistee river and drawbridge—a fab place to grab a burger and watch the occasional freighter passing through.

The Painted Lady Saloon | The oldest operating saloon in Manistee has kept its old-town feel and charm. It offers American cuisine and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a full-service bar.

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell