Experiencing Northern Michigan: Manistee’s 29th Annual Victorian Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend

Hailed as “one of Michigan’s most unique holiday celebrations,” Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend celebrated its 29th anniversary this year with an impressive schedule of activities and performances held last Thursday through Sunday, November 30–December 3. Inspired by Manistee’s rich history and the spirit of Christmastime in the nineteenth century, this signature event is home to a festive array of goings-on around Downtown Manistee and throughout the community.

Spectacularly decorated with garlands, wreaths, and red bows galore, Downtown Manistee transformed for the weekend into a whimsical place straight out of a snowglobe—with horse-drawn carriages, elves on stilts, carolers dressed in vintage Victorian costumes, bagpipers, high school marching bands, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and old-timey magic around every corner—even with no snow to set the scene for a winter wonderland.

Manistee overflowed in the holiday spirit all weekend long, giving this twenty-first century downtown a taste of what the 1880s was like here in Northern Michigan. The community goes all out celebrating its Victorian-era roots every Christmas, and this year’s festivities drew possibly the biggest crowds to date. On Saturday, December 2, I took part for the first time in the weekend’s most memorable events—and the brilliant, oversized supermoon in the clear Manistee sky made the night evermore unforgettable.

The festivities Saturday morning began at 10am with the Jingle Bell Jog 5K Run/Walk starting at Kennedy Elementary School, with proceeds going to the Manistee Schools Cross-Country Program. The day’s lineup of events also included a reindeer meet and greet, a main stage production of A Tuneful Christmas Carol based on the Charles Dickens classic at the historic Ramsdell Theatre, guided tours of the 1894 Lumber Baron Mansion, and an evening performance of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at Manistee High School. Horse-drawn carriage rides down River Street were available first come, first serve all afternoon—the epitome of magic and romance, especially on a feel-good winter day in Northern Michigan.

In addition to countless family-friendly goings-on promising tons of fun for kids of all ages—including plenty of hands-on crafts and cookie-decorating activitiesfestivities on Saturday alone included the Sleighbell Bazaar and Craft Show at Manistee High School, featuring fine crafts and arts from over 150 Manistee area artists, and “Christmas at the Lyman Building” exhibits at the Manistee County Historical Museum.

Also on Saturday: the Grinch made an appearance at Happy Owl Bookshop, which also hosted three local author with book signings afterward; a lavish Christmas tea at the Buckley House, “one of Manistee’s premier Victorian homes”; plus a variety of great street performances by a bell ensemble of women dressed in Victorian-era costumes and by the Merry Trombones, Invogue Brass Ensemble, and Maxwelltown Brass. 

I toured the Vogue Theatre, built in 1938 and recently renovated thanks to a grassroots effort that restored the theatre back to its spectacular original form—neon signage included. The downtown movie palace has an incredible history and revitalization story similar to that of the State Theatre in Traverse City. In fact, the Vogue and the State are close partners, both working closely with documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and the Traverse City Film Festival to make possible the vision for the Vogue’s grand opening.

The Historic Vogue Theatre of Manistee (HVTM) is a nonprofit organization through which over 500 people have volunteered thus far to make the Vogue’s striking revitalization a reality. “A catalyst for economic prosperity,” the Vogue Theatre is a shining gem in the heart of Downtown Manistee. It’s the only cinema in Manistee County for 30 miles, and features great movies—thanks to Moore’s assistance with programmingincluding independent films and documentaries.

Heather KendrickMiss Michigan herselfspent Saturday afternoon in Downtown Manistee at the Vogue Theatre taking pictures with the community and even appeared on the Ramsdell Stage at the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts, where she performed “an electro-pop violin tribute” to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” for Manistee’s Old Christmas Weekend audiences on December 2 at 7:30pm. I was lucky enough to get a picture with Heather at the Vogue Theatre before her big performance that evening! She’s super talented, kindhearted, and friendly—not to mention she’s Miss Michigan!

Swankyz was one of many downtown shops packed with customers who love all things Michigan. Warm and inviting, the store had a great atmosphere and was glowing with holiday decorations from ear to ear. Proudly selling Michigan-made, USA-made, and Fair Trade products, Swankyz “Good Goods” is the perfect place to find a thoughtful gift for those who love the Great Lakes state and appreciate pure Michigander craftsmanship.

At Moving Spirit, performers graced the storefront windows, enchanting customers and passersby walking the sidewalk along River Street. A glittering silver ballerina posed like a statue out of The Nutcracker in one window display, and celtic harpist Anne MacNeil played lovely holiday melodies in another. The ambiance in Moving Spirit was simply that: a moving experience for the spirit—and a joyous sip-and-shop hotspot.

Outside Surroundings, their window display featured an adorable holiday tree made of stacked cigar boxes. A Christmas cookie and wine pairing featuring chocolate covered cherry wine was the main event at Douglas Valley’s Downtown Tasting Room, serving delicious ciders and wines in the heart of Manistee. And the Marina housed Santa’s Headquarters, where children got to get their picture taken with Santa in advance of the parade while United Way of Manistee County provided free hot cocoa and fresh popcorn before the main event of the evening began.

Nearly every business was bustling with customers and fun happenings inside the gorgeous old buildings (many with stunningly restored interiors) that make up Downtown Manistee’s skyline. From sales, giveaways, and wine tasting to free hot cocoa, macaroons, and chocolate biscotti, there were promotional, educational, fun, and delicious happenings all along River Street and beyond.

Outside, the crowds grew denser and wider as everyone found their spots on the sidewalk to watch the Victorian Sleighbell Parade, a cheerful community march featuring community members and leaders of all ages representing the best of Manistee. Check out my complete gallery at the top for a sweeping look at the parade, which all culminated in the grand finale thousands of eager locals and tourists alike had been waiting for…

A decorated 30-foot tree pulled by draft horses through Downtown Manistee followed by caroling and an inspiring display of luminaries—a thousand luminaire candles distributed to the crowd at the end of the parade route by “Sleighbell Ambassadors” to commence the lighting of the community Christmas tree.

North Channel Brewery was packed all evening for their Sleighbell Bash event, drawing in long, winding lines after the parade wrapped up across the river. The brewmaster at North Channel Brewery makes their craft beers in-house—definitely worth sampling to find your favorite. Their industrial modern style gathering spaces feel open, inviting conversations around big tables and a space where the community can love to get together.

Another great event that continued after the parade was the Festival of Trees, a free event that took place in the beautiful ballroom of the Ramsdell Theatreyet another historic building in the heart of Downtown Manistee—hosted by the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce. A community staple that offers a cozy getaway from the action on River Street, the Festival of Trees draws in many area crafters who appreciate the art of Christmas decorating. 

Featuring creatively designed displays and uniquely decorated Christmas trees, wreaths, and seasonal decor by “local holiday enthusiasts,” the Festival of Trees is a silent auction at which guests can bid on their favorite designs by donating canned goods or pet food to help make the season brighter for those in need. There’s a little something to make everyone’s holiday season merry and bright at Sleighbell at the Ramsdell!

In a gem of a little city that sits along a river a few blocks down the way from majestic Lake Michigan, Downtown Manistee is simply magical, offering a one-of-a-kind setting for the best old-fashioned Christmas extravaganza in the Great Lakes state. This year’s Old Christmas Weekend in Manistee was an authentic experience of non-stop activity—and hopefully the start of a new family tradition for years to come.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary celebration of Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend, and I can’t wait to come back again to see how this phenomenal event will continue to grow. Downtown Manistee during the first weekend in December every year is a beloved setting in the hearts of locals and neighbors throughout our region. Whimsy, old-time magic, and good and giving people—an eventful weekend in Manistee reminded me how perfectly precious Northern Michigan is.

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