7 Michigan Cities that Always Go Big for the Holidays

Downtown Rochester lights up for the annual "Big Bright Light Show." (Courtesy/Big Bright Light Show via Facebook)

By Joseph Beyer

December 7, 2022

MICHIGAN—Proven science has found that Santa Claus must travel at about 0.5% the speed of light to successfully deliver all of his holiday gifts in one night—so we’re pretty lucky that he has taken the time to make himself available in so many different Michigan cities this month.

Even for a busy man on the move, he and the elves must know the distinguished home of both Vernors and the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World is the place to be this season. So if you seek some holiday-infused cheer, pack up the sled, hit the cold, pot-holed roads, and explore a few choice destinations from the state that always seems to shine brightest during winter. 

In order from closest distance to the North Pole:

Holiday Lasers on the Ore Dock

  • Marquette | Through Dec. 31, 2022
(Courtesy/Travel Marquette)

Built in 1911 and still operating today, this icon of the Upper Peninsula (also known as the Presque Isle Dock) is 1,250 feet long and stands 75 feet tall above the waterline of Lake Superior—and since last year, it has served as the most unique canvas for a light display in the Mitten. For several weeks on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights in December, the Ore Dock becomes a dazzling display against the dark sky from 6-9 p.m. It’s free to all who can brave the cold, and it even comes along with a cheerful Spotify playlist to accompany the visual artwork.

CherryT Ball Drop

  • Traverse City | Dec. 31, 2022
(Courtesy/CherryT Ball Drop via Facebook)

This event was founded in 2008 by a small group of locals who were just daring enough to dream of a giant ultra-bright cherry ball dropping Times Square-style to ring in the New Year. And over the years, it has grown into a full-blown Up North block party for all ages. With music and always-rambunctious energy, the “Cherry Drop,” for short, has become a charity event that has raised over $100,000 for local causes. Admission is a suggested donation of $5. If you can’t make it in person and still want to celebrate NYE in NoMi style, watch the live Facebook feed.

The Nate and Mary Ida Doan Santa House

  • Bay City | Through Dec. 22, 2022
(Courtesy/Nate and Mary Ida Doan Santa House via Facebook)

If you ever loved miniature worlds as a child, or created dioramas, light boxes or little villages of your own imaginations, then The Nate and Mary Ida Doan Santa House will bring you back in time. The magical experience begins with a cabin dating back to the 1920s, a structure with a long history of being moved around town before becoming the quasi-North Pole it is today.

New this season are live puppet shows performed by the resident elves, lots and lots of Legos, and a Toy Shop exhibit. This Santa-stic, over-the-top delight is now run entirely by volunteers and stewarded by a nonprofit organization. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed. 

Santa stops by from 6-8:30 p.m. every night—as well as 1-4 p.m. on the weekends. 

If you’re in town on a weekday, don’t miss the fascinating exhibit at the nearby Historical Museum of Bay City about founders Nate and Mary Ida—both of whom are members of the International Santa Hall of Fame. The unlikely, real-life Mr. & Mrs. Claus story of how they came together is delightful, just like the real-life gingerbread house experience that they launched. 

Holly Dickens Festival

  • Holly | Through Dec. 11, 2022
(Courtesy/Holly Dickens Festival via Facebook)

For those adventurists who seek roasted chestnuts and a Victorian vibe, the epic Holly Dickens Festival—taking place for the 49th year in historic downtown Holly—is the perfect gift this year. The weeklong festival not only includes Dickens’ characters from A Christmas Carol in real life, but also food, markets, music, horse-drawn carriages and a light parade, among other warm and fuzzy activities. The detailed daily schedules and all the particulars to plan a visit can be found online, and the popularity of this annual tradition speaks to its Fezziwig values and the spirit of Dickens himself. You don’t have to enjoy figgy pudding or be a bookworm to love this small town adventure, but it’s a great way to re-explore or introduce the classic to someone new.

Prize turkeys from the window on Christmas morning must be procured independently.

Whoville 5k

  • Grand Rapids | Dec. 11, 2022
(Courtesy/Gazelle Sports via Facebook)

This family-friendly, Seuss-style Mardi Gras holiday celebration (without the adult eggnog) is not a race, and no one wins. Instead, it’s a multifaceted dream world at Riverside Park where kids and parents can play alongside characters who come to life from Whoville, including the Grinch.

Every child receives a festive hat and medal along with some treats at the Who-Village after the run. Costumes are encouraged, and the proceeds benefit local charities as organized by the hosts at Gazelle Sports. 

More Holiday Fun for Kids

For parents of children with visions of sugar-plums and beeping electronics dancing in their heads, let your kids play with Google’s Santa Tracker or Operation Santa from the USPS or even the one from NORAD. Real Santa Science also tells us kids have higher self-esteem and positive feelings about themselves when they see and recognize their identity in others, so a mother created this FindBlackSanta mobile app to help, for those many who might want it.

The Big Bright Light Show

  • Rochester | Through Jan. 21, 2023
(Courtesy/Big Bright Light Show via Facebook)

Launched in 2006 with a measly 500,000 LED lights, the Big Bright Light Show has now grown to feature over more than 1 million sparkling, glittering lights—all working together in a celebration of Rochester effervescence that could rival the marquees of Reno. This festival, though, takes place only one special time of the year. That’s why you need to seek it out for some glowingly wild selfies and shopping that supports the city’s local businesses. Most of those stay open until about 9 p.m., but all of the lights will stay on every night until midnight. 

Don’t worry: The city isn’t footing the light bill. That’s paid by Fox Automotive and WXYZ ABC.

Menorah in the D

  • Detroit | Dec. 18, 2022
(Courtesy/Menorah in the D)

Standing 26 feet tall in downtown Detroit, this community celebration of the Jewish season and identity welcomes people of all ages and faiths to the Motor City for an event that has been taking place annually for more than a decade. The first lighting of the menorah itself, which was designed and built by the Nordine Brothers of the Detroit Design Center, takes place on Dec. 18—the first night of Hanukkah—and will be followed with a full week of nightly illuminations. 

RSVPs are required to attend in person at Campus Martius Park. Guests will be treated to ciders, soups and Kosher food trucks, and can expect music and photo opps with the Dreidel Man and Dancing Torahs—all to support good causes and support local businesses in the D.

Everyone else can watch the live Zoom stream.  

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