GTPulse Weekend Planner: Don Sharpe Brings Decades of Christmas Joy to the Grand Traverse Resort

One of my favorite stories of all time would have to be A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens perfectly encapsulates the Christmas spirit through literal spirit representatives from the past, present and future. I had the ghost of Christmas past on my mind recently during a visit to the Grand Traverse Resort. Memories of the famed Northwoods Festival of Lights flooded my mind, as I thought of myself as a child, mesmerized by the animatronic bears, penguins and even flying horses that adorned the lobby as I waited in line to tell Santa my Christmas wishes.

If the Grand Traverse Resort had a ghost of Christmas past, it would probably be Don Sharpe. In fact, Don could easily fill all three roles as he has been with the Grand Traverse Resort for a total of 40 years. “I have worked at the property in some capacity since 1980, shortly after the opening, working in mostly food and beverage supervisory and management positions. I took a short break, taking a position at NMC in Food and Beverage administration, but was brought back that same year. So, adding the two stints of employment together is 40 years,” said Don.

Christmas Past

In the early days, Don was working mostly in food and beverage management, but he recalls the Northwoods Festival of Lights. “Those were the days of the animatronics. Flying horses in the atrium, they covered the fountain area that was at that time centered in the center of the lobby area and built the scenery area and along the south west wall where the lobby bar is now.  It was quite the undertaking.”

Northwoods Festival Of Lights 1994 Credit Kaye Krapohl

The Northwoods Festival of Lights continued into the mid 1990s. Although, due to the scope of the project and the ongoing need to replace motors in many of the animatronic animals, the resort decided to take a new approach to holiday decorating. Instead of hiring an outside agency for the décor, as was the custom during the Northwoods Festival of Lights era, the resort’s internal marketing team inherited the responsibilities for a few years.

Then, in the early 2000s after the resort was purchased by the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Don Sharpe was handed the decorating reins. “I was (working) in the Christmas store when the Tribe purchased (the resort) and the first General Manager put two and two together—‘Don runs a successful Christmas store, knows how to decorate a tree fairly well, why don’t we have him do it?’ The rest is history, I guess.”

Early on, Don worked with a small group to pull off the decorating. Don explains, “We had a committee, if one would call it that. Judy Biswanger was an Executive Administrative Assistant, Layla Field worked in the Marketing Department, Sue Gresens was the Condo Manager. They all served as lift drivers, and various folks helped on the ground over the years.”

Don’s attention to detail is evident, and walking into the lobby each holiday, it’s apparent that he has put significant thought into coordinating the décor to match the lobby.

Northwoods Festival Of Lights 1992 Credit Kaye Krapohl

“I have to tell you I am a color coordination freak, and for many years, I played off the colors in the lobby versus ornament colors. So, when we had the rust and earth tone carpeting and furniture, we used more reds and browns and greens—a little more traditional. Then came a general manager that decided he liked aquas and colorful furniture, and that was a challenge.  That is when I started the transition to white and crystal. And then, when the carpeting and furniture started changing again, we went into the pastel blues and silvers. This year, I added purple,” said Don.

The challenges go beyond coordinating colors, and mistakes are bound to happen, but Don thinks he’s received help—perhaps from the Christmas spirits themselves. “Last year I actually made an error and accidentally ordered a different shade of white lighting strands.  We went to the power saving version which gives a much longer life to the displays, but instead of white light, it ended up a lovely shade of light blue.  After sitting down to cry for about half an hour, I realized that the new birch twig lit trees I had purchased had twinkle lights that were the exact shade of blue. So, sitting there drying my eyes, I felt a gentle nudge from an unseen source and a mental message that said, ‘Now look, you did just fine.’ I truly believe in divine intervention (with) this every year.  Actually, every year when I create the lighting at the top of the 18 foot tree, I whisper the same words—‘Help me.’ And every year, it’s just a little different and it takes my breath away when it’s completed.”

Don has even turned one of the more common mistakes into a tradition.

“How many ornaments have I dropped?” he asks, laughing, “Many, countless. Early on, I went to plastic or acrylic whenever possible. I have a dear friend, Richard Bantien, that works in accounting. I gave him a Charlie Brown tree from the Christmas store when it closed. He kept it in his office for many years and I always gave him the most spectacular broken ornaments over the years, and he hung them on that tree in his office. We had a lot of fun with that over the years.”

Christmas Present

It might take one or two individuals a few days to decorate their own homes for the holidays, but, when it comes to the Grand Traverse Resort, Don reserves the lobby for one full week. At that point, Don says a small village of sorts comes together to bring the lobby to life. “We always ask for help from the employees and we have a dedicated small group, ranging from seven to 14 people. My favorite is the center court tree. When I see people walk in the front doors, and their mouths drop open and the gaze upwards. When I see so many people taking holiday photos at the tree, many year after year, after year—it’s very humbling.”

Northwoods Festival Of Lights 1993 Credit Kaye Krapohl

As far as the work is concerned, the center tree itself takes three days to put together. Don says, “It is always completed by Thanksgiving weekend, and is up through the first week of January.  This year, depending on the state’s gathering rules, we may leave it up into late January 2021.”

Don admits that he has had to slow down and ask for more help over the years, “This year, because of my health, I didn’t fly in the lift as I usually do.  Michelle Trumble who is administration in the sales office, and her husband Paul who is a supervisor in engineering, ran the lift to do the big tree.  I started them out  and plotted it out for them, they did the hard work. And, the tree is absolutely stunning.  I am so very proud of them.”

Another favorite aspect of the Grand Traverse Resort’s holiday décor is the gingerbread house. “The gingerbread house changes every year. This, I leave it to the culinary department. They often play off different themes. Bryant Betts, our Executive Chef, and the bakery department took charge this year.”

Christmas Future:

Don admits that taking down the holiday decorations each year is much faster than putting them up. “With a crew of five to 10 people we can get it down and get it packed away in a eight hour day. It’s all about organization, which is what just about everything is about in this production.”


Still, Don knows he is nearing the age where he will have to pass the torch to the next decorator. “My problem is age, and climbing in and out of the lift and up and down ladders. Gravity and arthritis are not my friends” he laughs. “As I get closer to retirement— which many are dreading, I think—I am trying to find someone with organizational skills as well as an eye for detail to hand this off to.”

Without a doubt, the person who Don chooses to fill his shoes will have quite a legacy to continue. Aside from Don’s organization and eye for detail, is the soul of a man who is genuinely filled with the Christmas spirit.

“Well…here is where my sentimentality comes into play. We all have our gifts, and Christmas is about receiving a gift, isn’t it?  Whether it is secular or religious, the holidays are about love and receiving the gift of love. This undertaking over the years became less of labor to complete on time, and more of a labor of love.  My planning skills and organizational abilities such that they are, are only as good as the folks that are on the crew. They do this because they want to do it. When they put it together and it all comes to completion, it is a gift to the staff, to the local patrons, and those that visit us from far off places. A gift of peace, of beauty, and yes, of love. When I see something that I have in my head come to life before my eyes, it’s very humbling. And in that humility, there is reward,” Don said.

So this weekend, pay a visit to the Grand Traverse Resort. Don encourages selfies in front of the gingerbread house and family photos in front of the 18 foot tree. After all, each of those photos represent your own ghosts of Christmas past and present. And, as you stroll through the lobby, you can rest assured knowing that Don Sharpe will be sure the tradition continues well into the future.


Special thanks to Kaye Kraphol for providing photos of the Northwoods Festival of Lights.

The Grand Traverse Resort and Spa is open and adhering to COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines. You can shop any of the extensive Tower Gallery of Shops and visit the spa. Gift certificates are also available.


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