Traditions remind us of childish wonder

Christmas Archive Photo From left to right, Darby, Mason and Justin Hinkley are seen posing in front of a Santa statue at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth in 2011.

I am a stone-cold, certified Christmas fanatic.

My tree is up, my house is lighted, and there’s Christmas music playing in my car every year before Thanksgiving.

The reason Christmas is king among holidays – even among the non-religious, who aren’t celebrating it as the birth of our Lord – is that it reminds us of a time when we still saw magic and wonder in the world.

It plays on all of our senses – the feel of the cold air and warm sweaters, the smell and tastes of our favorite foods, the sounds of carols and bells, the sights of glittering lights and snow – to ground us in our roots and remind us of happy childhood times.

And we create traditions to annually bring us back to that magic.

My family had many traditions when I was a boy. My grandmother’s Dutch apple pie. My mother’s themed Thanksgiving meals – one year everything had a cranberry flavor, another it was Cajun. My great-grandfather bringing my brother and I bag of walnuts every year. The way my mother always let my brothers and I open one present on Christmas Eve and it was always new sets of matching pajamas, so we would look good in Christmas morning pictures.

And, on Christmas morning, always a chocolate orange in our stockings.

Now that I’m grown, with a son of my own, I try to create new traditions for him. We still do the chocolate orange in our stockings. Every Christmas morning, we eat Pillsbury orange cinnamon rolls. Baby Jesus stays absent from our Nativity set until Christmas morning. The Elf on the Shelf pops up in odd places around the house all season long.

But my favorite among our new traditions is our annual trip to “Santa’s house” in Frankenmuth.

Every year since Mason was an infant, usually sometime in November, Darby and I have taken Mason and met Darby’s mother in Frankenmuth. We spend at least one night at the Bavarian Inn, eat the big family-style chicken dinner there, and shop at Bronnner’s Christmas Wonderland.

The whole town looks like an alpine fairy tale at Christmastime. The inn — in addition to the best chicken dinner and good, belly-warming German beer the world has to offer — has several restaurants, shops, multiple swimming pools, water slides, a massive arcade, and an indoor miniature golf course.

But the best part of the trip, for me, is Bronner’s. Floor-to-ceiling twinkle lights and Christmas-tree ornaments, Christmas trees and inflatable decorations. Plates and silverware, knick-knacks. Stockings of every description.

Every year, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I walk into Bronner’s and gasp, wide-eyed with wonder the way Kevin McAllister looked at Duncan’s Toy Chest or Ralphie Parker looked at the Higgby’s window.

I love looking at the various miniature, porcelain Christmas towns they have on display and checking out their not-for-sale, decades-old, animatronic Christmas displays filling every corner of the rafters and several areas on the sales floor. I love reading the old newspaper clippings of the many, many articles written about the place, seeing all the autographed photos of celebrities who have stopped by over the years.

The best part: Every year, Darby, Mason and I each pick out a new ornament for our tree, something that says a little bit about ourselves. It’s been great watching Mason choose his ornaments, illustrating his loves and interests that year: Angry Birds, video games, Star Wars …

We also all three together choose an ornament for our dog, Milk Dud, and our cat, Lily (there’s always a pet store in Frankenmuth from which Milky and Lily each get a new toy for Christmas).

Then, before we leave, Mason chooses a Russian nesting doll, same as he has every year. They’re starting to fill up the top of his dresser: A football player, a dog, a cat, a penguin, a frog, an elf-looking man. We’ve done it long enough now that it’s getting difficult to find ones he doesn’t already have.

On the way out, we usually pick up some old-timey candy, like root beer barrels or licorice, and then we head home.

We always put away the nesting doll to be wrapped and opened on Christmas morning.

And, every year, the new doll gets put up atop his dresser, joining its others from prior years.

I love looking at his growing collection, that handcrafted menagerie, and thinking that, though he’s still too young to fully comprehend it, all those faces stacked on his dresser must give him a subconscious sense of security, a tangible reminder that he is home.

And I like to think about how, somebody, he may give those nesting dolls to his own son, and tell a story about how Grandma and Grandpa took him to Christmas Town every year.

And then maybe we’ll meet them there at the Bavarian Inn every November, and Mason will buy another nesting doll for his son, something he can always hold to remind him that things are magical.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.