The spectrum of scenes in the winter in the Michiana area range from icy lighthouses just off the beach in St. Joseph to snow-covered turf football field, where Santa Claus parks his house for the holiday season in South Bend.
For as large and spread out as the Michiana region is, it actually forms a rather tight-knit community with a series of holiday traditions that everyone can enjoy, no matter if someone lives in Plymouth or Benton Harbor.
What makes a holiday tradition in both southwest Michigan and northwest Indiana is a family-oriented environment that people start getting excited for as soon as they see the season’s first snowflake, or a Christmas decoration hanging from a lamppost.
BUTLER TREE FARM
Sam and Brenda Butler decided to open their farm to guests for the holidays more than a decade ago. Today, Butler Tree Farm in Dowagiac is a must-see for families with small children or who enjoy having an adventure when picking out their Christmas tree.
Visiting families can take wagon rides while they find their perfect tree. Once they find it, the tree is cut down with a saw and, on occasion, a friendly snowball fight or two might ensue before and after.
Families that prefer a more relaxing time may sit and sip on hot chocolate or warm apple cider.
“We want it to feel like you’re coming home to grandma’s house,” Brenda says.
She says that starting the tree farm was never about making money, but instead about bringing families together, especially during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
“There’s no time of the year where traditions are more important than around the holidays,” Brenda says.
The tree farm opens for Christmas right around Thanksgiving.
SANTA VISITS UNIVERSITY PARK MALL
A long-standing tradition in Michiana is Santa Claus visiting children at University Park Mall in Mishawaka.
Every year, long lines of parents with their children wait in the mall for a photo opportunity with Santa Claus, while the children get to tell the man dressed in red what they want for Christmas.
At the event, the mall always has a photographer on hand to take professional photos of children.
There are plenty of other places to see Santa in Michiana, as well. Other places include the Niles Elks, downtown South Bend, Fernwood Botanical Gardens and Four Winds Casino, among many others.
Southold Dance Nutcracker
Since 1892, millions of people all over the world have witnessed Tchaikovsky’s classic holiday ballet. For more than 40 years, the Southold Dance Theater has carried on the tradition in South Bend, presenting its own take of “The Nutcracker,” and this winter will be no different.
With seats starting at $20, the performance will once again take place at the Morris Performing Arts Center in downtown South Bend on Dec. 8 and 9. The golden theater with its classic design creates an ideal setting for one of the most popular Christmas stories.
“Going to ‘The Nutcracker’ is a special event,” says Diana Green, director of operations for the Southold Dance Theater. “People dress up to go. They go to a beautiful theater and watch beautiful dancers. They hear this wonderful [Pyotr Ilyich] Tchaikovsky music and see a wonderful performance. It’s just positive, wonderful, warm and welcoming experience.”
A majority of the performers are children between the ages of 4 and 19, with a few adults mixed in for age-appropriate roles. In fact, the show is catered so much to children that many schools in the area take students to see it.
“We perform school shows the day before the Nutcracker opens at the Morris,” Diana says, “and we reach probably close to 3,000 school children.”
LIGHT UP THE BLUFF
The closest thing to a real-life winter wonderland in the Michiana area is at Lake Bluff Park and downtown St. Joseph, where during the first full weekend in December, one million lights turn on, illuminating the beachfront for more than a mile.
“It’s a community tree lighting ceremony and we’re really excited about it and it includes a lot of the community,” says Daniele Crevier with St. Joe Today. “The high school choir actually performs Christmas carols right before the tree lighting. The ceremony starts at six, and the tree lighting starts at 6:30.”
The opening ceremony attracts people from all over Michiana, but the lights stay up through Valentine’s Day, giving area residents plenty of opportunities to experience them.
The event has been going on for more than a decade, and is put on my St. Joseph’s public works department, which spends about a month transforming Lake Bluff Park.
Visitors often walk the through the mile-stretch of lights while drinking hot chocolate, which they can get from Kilwin’s or the local Chocolate Cafe.
“I think it is just a unique way to see downtown St. Joe,” Danielle says. “It transforms everything into a winter wonderland. You can just walk that mile stretch and be immersed in the holiday spirit. It’s really cool.”
SANTA IN THE RIVER
For more than 50 years, Santa Claus has found a home in the middle of the St. Joseph River in Niles, where he stands with a Christmas tree and sled while being pulled by his reindeer.
The statuesque Santa Claus float is anchored in the river across from Lakeland-Niles Hospital, 31 N. St. Joseph St. For the past several years Mike Peters, Larry Pickles and a group of volunteers dubbed “Santa’s Helpers” brave the elements in order to put Santa in place in early December.
The Santa display is positioned near the hospital because people thought it would lift holiday spirits.
“They thought they could bring joy to the children in the hospital,” Mike says. “It just snowballed from that.”
And it snowballed from there. Now people from Niles and other Michiana residents travel to the hospital just to see Santa Claus in the river. It has become a tradition for many, and, of course, it does not cost a dime to see.